Theatre Review: An Officer and a Gentleman @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Steve Hartill
I'm the first to admit that I don't know much about musicals, the military or this movie. By this movie, I mean An Officer and a Gentleman from 1982 starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger. The most I do know about it is the iconic ending sequence and the song 'Up Where We Belong' that plays during and is a cinematic classic. So first impressions are an open mind, especially with the 80s montage screen of pop culture and political references setting the scene.
In fact, the set design throughout the production makes big contributions to the cinematic feel of the show. At first it appears a little minimalist, but this is to serve large set-pieces that make a big addition to key locations – a particular highlight is the intricate TJ's bar, as well as the DOR bell, the omnipresence of which really ramps up the dramatic pressure.
With any musical, it's essential to focus on the songs, and there's an impressively varied listing of intensely nostalgic 80s hits. Some do better than others at supporting the narrative of the show – one instance of 'Don't Cry Out Loud' particularly stands out as weird maternal advice – but the cast undeniably belt out hits that the audience wants. Particular highlights for me included 'It's a Man's Man's Man's World' from an exceptional female ensemble, an extremely emotional rendition of 'Family Man' and an intricately staged showing of 'Toy Soldiers'. There were also some genuinely surprising transitions into some song choices, with "Material Girl" standing out.
An undeniable highlight of the show is the pairing of the leads Emma Williams and Jonny Fines, as Paula Pokrifki and Zack Mayo respectively.
They both showed amazing range and stamina with two huge parts. Stand-out stars in the supporting cast included the amiably comedic Andy Barke as Louis "Grampa" Perryman and Keisha Atwell's Casey Seegar, whose subplot brought about a spontaneous round of applause, and carried a supporting character into a fully fledged spin-off of her own.
There were some low-lights, including what appeared to be a technical hitch at one point with one of the on-stage doors giving the audience more view backstage. In addition, screens are used throughout the production to convey additional events, and at points the quality on these felt jarringly like home videos, or used as an unnecessary gimmick. Ray Shell's Emil Foley at first was an underwhelming cliche of a drill sergeant character for me, although one could argue that such a nostalgic show will inevitably include cliches. Also, the climax of his own journey provided deeply rewarding catharsis.
The ending of the original movie is, as said above, undeniably iconic. The introduction of 'Up Where We Belong' stood out as somewhat strange, to my mind, in that the music swells unexpectedly early and diminishes our expectations of that moment. But despite a few flaws, the audience was swept up in a wave of enthusiasm and warmth, with a fantastically uplifting ending.