REVIEW: Can-Can, Union Theatre ✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Can-Can now playing at the Union Theatre.

Can-Can Union Theatre
Photo: Scott Rylander

Union Theatre
2 Stars
Book Tickets

For all of you hoping to see Cole Porter’s magnificent musical about riotous living in fin-de-siecle Paris, this show will come as a disappointment.  There isn’t a note of his wonderful music here, or a syllable of his witty and elegant lyrics.  Instead, we get a little sub-title informing us that this will be ‘The New Offenbach Musical’.  So, one attends the theatre expecting a kind of back-catalogue show re-using the music of the legendary French operetta composer (probably best known for his number of the same name that comes from his most popular show, ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’).  But neither is it that.  No; instead, when you get hold of a programme you finally discover that this is actually a pasticcio affair, gathering together a collection of songs by a very broad selection of operetta composers, most of them American, Austrian, British or Czech: only a quarter of the numbers are by Offenbach.  And the lack of French connection does not end there: the ‘book’ is miles away from that milieu, being drawn from Pinero’s old warhorse, ‘Trelawny of the Wells’, a story that explores British social snobbery in a way that French operetta couldn’t care less about.  The adaptor, the indefatigable Phil Willmott, is convinced of its viability, however, and simply lifts the plot and characters and transplants them to Third Republic France of the 1890s.  Well, no; he doesn’t just do that.  In the process, he also removes most of the light-hearted comedy of the British play and substitutes a gloomy, rather sorrowful atmosphere, making it a bitter parable of failed ambition and metropolitan prejudices, enhanced no end by Phil Setren’s stiff direction and Matthew Swithinbank’s often grimly shadowy lighting.

Can-Can! Review Union Theatre
Grace Manley and James Alexander Chew in Can-Can! Photo: Scott Rylander\
This is a great shame, because the opening promises so much.  But then, it is in hands of a different creative intelligence entirely.  The work of the choreographer, Adam Haigh, is the one reason why you should go and see this production – and I do think you should, for all its other faults.  His musical stagings are an absolute delight, and the curtain raiser is a case in point.  Making deft use of Justin Williams and Johnny Rust’s supple proscenium-arch-on-a-truck staging (one of their best to date), Haigh catapults us into a true ‘hurricane’ of theatrical activity that recalls the best tracking shots of Fellini at his most joyous and carefree.  It is marvellous to see the stage buzzing with a relatively huge cast of 17, all doing meticulously detailed things and seemingly completely in their element.  With a mainly youthful company, most of them starting out on their careers, this is just what they need when working on ventures of this kind.  From the outset, they win you over and you warm to their many youthful charms – helpfully admonished by the presence of the more seasoned Richard Harfst, PK Taylor, Mark Garfield and Corinna Marlowe.  If only the rest of the production sustained this mood.
Can-Can review Union Theatre
James Alexander Chew, Emily Barnett Salter, Kathy Peacock, and Kasey Claybourn in Can-Can! Photo: Scott Rylander
Instead, it is really all down to the dance numbers to lift hearts.  And lift our hearts they do: Haigh really, really knows how to marshal his forces and create utterly lush effects, one moment making us think of Massine’s ‘Gaite Parisienne’, and the next recalling Balanchine’s intricate movements within groups, or even Gene Kelly’s ‘An American In Paris’ – a very tricky thing to pull off, and one that Haigh succeeds in here with positively painterly control.  This is choreography of the highest order, and his finale – worth waiting for – is an absolute firework display of energy and explosive effects.  Yes, he does have a habit of going from 0 to 60 in one second: there are times when one yearns for a slower velocity, a more legato phrase, or simply just a pause and stillness – for instance, the showy hi-jinks of the pas-de-deux for the lovers in the second act might be more involving were it built up to a little more seductively.  Be that as it may, the cast get every opportunity to show off their bravura trickery – dozens and dozens of jumps for the boys (James Alexander-Chew takes your breath away), constant surprises generated by endlessly shifting angles of approach, and some really flashy effects for the girls.  It’s bliss.
Can-Can Union Theatre
Damjan Mrackovich with Kathy Peacock in Can-Can!. Photo: Scott Rylander
The company have definitely been chosen for their ability to do justice to the demands their choreographer makes of them.  But this is an operetta and they are also required to sing, and the music they are asked to perform is not easy stuff.  Tuneful, yes, but it makes a lot of demands of the voice.  The simple truth is that this material needs stronger more developed voices.  Only in the choral numbers, where they can combine voices, do they sound properly at home.  Elsewhere, in the individual numbers, it is sometimes alarming to discover how over-taxed they are by the musical line, the requirements of support, the hazards of correct intonation and intelligible locution.  Even in this small space, some struggle to project their voices over the single instrument accompaniment (MD Rosa Lennox, who often gets into difficulties herself with the little piano tucked at the side of the stage: she seems more at home with the clarinet she also plays).  The musical arrangements are by Richard Baker and he has done what he can to fuse the disparate elements of the show’s musical palate into a ‘score’ (including several sections dependent on playback of pre-recorded orchestral sounds), but it is still just a parade of ‘greatest hits’: without much in the way of recitative, ensemble, scena, and an over-reliance of simple repetition of refrains, inevitably, the lack of variety in form creates a uniformity of effect that becomes predictable and gradually saps the show of energy.
Can Can review Union Theatre
Photo: Scott Rylander
This, again, doesn’t help the cast make the best of the occasion.  Recently, in Berlin, a ground-breaking re-imagining of ‘The White Horse Inn’ showed just how possible it is to take a big classic operetta and refashion it in the mode of more contemporary entertainment, and – above all – so it fits the voices and styles of today.  With a cast like this, that might have been a more sensible – and constructive – approach.  Instead, Damjan Mrakovich as the romantic lead, Christian Bontoux, has to force his voice into doing things it is clearly not suited to; playing opposite him, Kathy Peacock’s Jane puts in a lot of sound technique, but how cruel to make her debut with Hanna Glawari’s rising, soaring melody from the ‘Merry Widow Waltz’, a number written for a definitely much more physically mature woman.  And so on.  Emily Barnett-Salter gives us a tear-away performance as the vulgar Yvette, but the music makes her push her voice in a way that cannot be comfortable.  Taylor’s tawdry drag-act, Goulue, is a delight – in a kind of low-rent ‘Cage aux Folles’ way – but her music needs a re-think.  I could go on, but I think the point has been made.
Can-Can! Union Theatre
The cast of Can-Can! Photo: Scott Rylander
One cheers up each time a dance number comes along, but the waits in between can be long.  Meanwhile, you do have to listen to a lot of rather stilted dialogue.  Some of the cast do what they can to beef up their characterisations, but the script doesn’t do them many favours.  ‘Trelawny’ opened to lukewarm reviews and when it has been revived since, producers have been careful to give it really high-powered casting with performers who have the experience and skill to negotiate its many weaknesses.  Rather than showcasing this hard-working cast, however, a script like this isn’t kind to them.  It is wonderful to see such a big crowd dancing the spectacular big numbers, and if only the show could have taken that strength as its cue and built itself about them more.  The costumes by Penn O’Gara are handsome, and could have stepped out of any impressionist art gallery, but the director seems less comfortable with this mix of haute-bourgeoisie and demi-mondains: too often they are left to stand around, floundering for any sense of direction, not inhabiting their roles at all.  The danced numbers are expertly executed, but the acting is by contrast left rough and unfinished.  Ultimately, theatre is about the relationship between who is on the stage and who is in the audience; thankfully, one of the creative team seems to have understood that – his achievement, though, serves only to highlight deficiencies in other departments.
Until 9 March 2019


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