Repeat Attenders is a documentary that examines the lives of musical theatre’s most diehard fans. Did reading that sentence make you check over your shoulder for hidden camera crews? Don’t worry, this film goes far beyond seeing Wicked five times or listening to the Hamilton cast album on repeat.
The documentary opens in Paddington Station, where Sally Frith is on her way to see Les Misérables for the 977th time. That isn’t a typo. One in every 60,000 tickets ever sold for the international mega-smash Les Misérables has been purchased by Frith, who later tells us she has spent approximately £50,000 on her favourite pastime. So far.
And thus begins the early-Louis Theroux vibe of the film’s first act. We are introduced to a series of unusual characters who leave us impressed, confused, and horrified. Gudrun Mangel never realised her childhood dream of appearing in Starlight Express, so has turned to re-creating the costumes and performing as a roller-skating train in a somewhat less flashy but no less enthusiastic tribute act. Christine Bogle has dedicated her life – and at least $20,000 of her money – to collecting Cats memorabilia. Joel Torrance’s lucrative job as an investment banker allowed him to see Rent 1,169 times, before he was banned from the theatre.
Mind-blowing stuff, but fortunately the film does more than point at some eccentric characters and encourage us to laugh at them to feel better about ourselves. Director Mark Dooley digs deeper to show the human beings behind these obsessions. As we grow to understand them better, their preoccupations somehow become all the more upsetting.
We are mostly left to come to our own conclusions about whether the superfans are dealing with their respective issues in a healthy way. The only outside perspectives come from a “certified hypnotist” (all the psychologists must have been busy that day), and a theatre PR, who tells us that every hour we spend at the theatre is added on to the end of our lives. How delightfully audacious and on-brand.
The most uncomfortable segment of the film concerns a man who has served prison time for stalking a theatre star. He is given free rein to talk about his abhorrent behaviour, but his wild excuses and justifications make him no more sympathetic. I don’t have any credentials in psychology (nor hypnosis, for that matter) so it would be inappropriate to speculate on the mental health of any of the film’s participants, but hopefully there is a world of difference between this man and the comparatively innocent compulsions of the other repeat attenders.
A more uplifting interviewee is Buyi Zama, who has played the part of Rafiki in The Lion King for 13 years and over 4,300 performances. Her job has seen her moving all around the world, singing the same songs over and over again. The joy she exudes in her interviews and performances is genuine and delightful, and not dissimilar to that shown by the repeat attenders. It isn’t simply the money that motivates her: she has found a life that works for her. She is the improbably happy Sisyphus.
Despite the positive spin the interviewees put on the healing potential of art and theatre, it is impossible to leave this film feeling entirely at ease with the participants’ life choices. Their obsessions have demonstrably had at least some negative impact, even if only financial. But then, who are any of us to judge the choices others make that affect nobody but themselves?
We all struggle through life in whatever way we can. One difference between escape via theatre and escape through other means is that the former forces us to confront ourselves, even if only on a subconscious level. It at least approaches the sort of psychological support that all of us need now and then. Maybe going to see a musical 1,000 times isn’t financially sensible or good for your health, but neither is that bottle of wine you just drank.
Did you just check over your shoulder again?
Ian Bowkett - musicaltheatrereview.com