Last Updated on 17th May 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
BACK TO THE OFFICE, EVERYONE!
There is, by chance a bit of a Thing going on in theatre right now: women playing a particularly alpha type of men, with glee and an unnerving soprano or contralto ability suddenly to sink to a near-baritone growl. It’s there in Operation Mincemeat’s MI5 officers, and here in Georgie Rankcom’s playful production of Loesser’s musical take on a 1950s corporate world. So we have not only a sparky Gabrielle Friedman from Seattle as the artfully ambitious J.Pierrepont Finch but the peerless Tracie Bennett – so memorable as a declining Judy Garland ten years back – bringing all her panache and elegant handling of classic lyrics to the role of J.B. Biggley the President of Worldwide Wickets. She is indeed a treat, her swagger carrying this lightweight, too-silly-for-sincerity entertainment.
It was a jokey book by Shepherd Mead in 1952, then a film and finally this show, with Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s book and – most importantly – songs by the great Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls (just up the road at the Bridge, go!). It’s dated but has plenty of recognisably sharp jokes about nepotism, insincerity and – after a corporate disaster – the chorus of shoddily self-made men singing how “being mediocre is not a mortal sin”. Ouch.
The lyrics are splendid, not least the first big number by Allie DAniel’s Rosemary the Secretary about her ‘50s surrendered-wife dream of marrying an executive, keeping his dinner warm of an evening and “basking in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect”. Likewise the various office-life ensembles: maybe we’re nostalgic – I sneakily conned the matinee audience for all these notorious mid-life WFH addicts. For instance “if I don’t take my coffee break, something inside me dies”, Mead’s mantra that you should always choose g a company so big that nobody really knows what everyone else is doing. It gets the manipulation, passive-aggressive bitchery and need to woo the big man’s gatekeeping secretary. Friedman bonding blokily with Bennett over college memories in Grand Old Ivy is very Bullingdon, and all the studio-size choreographed ensembles are fun to be close to.
My only real cavil about the production’s tone is that it is half-dated and half-contemporary, in mostly pretty casual costumes (though Tracie Bennett s brown suit does at least fit beautifully) and thus it’s not entirely sure where to sit. A few weeks ago this enterprising little theatre offered, in the smaller space, Joseph Charlton’s mischievous tech-bro piece Brilliant Jerks, which was 100% about now and therefore drew you sharply in without apology – just as Guys and Dolls does by being unashamedly 1920s. This period piece – a bit overlong at nearly two and three-quarter hours – has a bit more trouble. But the songs are great, and so is Bennett. Fun.
Until 17 June 2023 at Southwark Playhouse