REVIEW: Pete ‘N’ Keely, Tristan Bates Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Pete 'n' Keely at Tristan Bates
Katie Kerr and David Bardsley in Pete ‘N’ Keely

Pete ‘N’ Keely
Tristan Bates Theatre
Thursday 4th May 2017
4 Stars
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Three cheers for the bold, brilliant and brave production of this two-hander bursting onto the stage of the cosily intimate Tristan Bates Theatre, thanks to the efforts – I believe – of director Matthew Gould to drag it before our gaze.  Seventeen long years ago, it wowed Off-Broadway audiences for an unaccountably brief stay of just over 100 performances, and now it is making a flying visit to this ‘gem’ of a theatre in Covent Garden.  If ingenious revues masquerading as musicals are your thing, then do not let it go by unobserved.  You will be enchanted.

First things first.  Emily Bestow gets the set just right, with a magnificently colourful and yet simple and spacious design that locates us in the world of glossy, colour-TV specials, where the eponymous two are about to stage a very public post-divorce reunion.  Mitchell Reeve lights it with depth and intensity, and Sam Glossop’s sound design begins by serving up 60s commercial soundtrack chatter before giving perfectly balanced voice to the band led by James Cleeve (keys), with Richard Burden on an array of percussion and Doug Grannell on bass: they are an ace combo, playing Patrick S Brady’s arrangements with precision and love.  Brady also wrote the new musical material and did the vocal arrangements, more of which in a moment.

Pete 'n' Keely at Tristan bates Theatre
Katie Kerr and David Bardsley in Pete ‘N’ Keely

After a bit of an intro, we meet our ‘stars’ for the night: a frighteningly wigged, Zapata-moustachioed, frilly-shirted Pete Bartel (think Robert Goulet meets Liberace) and ample, imposing Keely Stevens (she seems to have strayed out of ‘Hairspray’, via ‘The Valley of the Dolls’).  These two then whisk us through a stunning sequence of virtuoso turns, exploring the beginnings of their respective careers, their meeting, courtship and marriage, divorce, separate and not-very-good solo careers, and – finally – ultimate onstage, onscreen reconciliation.  Along the way, the two carry the burden of the story-telling, with only the briefest of respites from occasional voice-over interruptions and a much-needed interval.  As well as being an object lesson in how to create a perfectly formed, fully fledged entertainment with just two actors, it is also a herculean challenge making great demands on the performers’ skills and artistry.

Our actors here are David Bardsley, who was recently a very capable Bruce Ismay in the revival of ‘Titanic’ at the Charing Cross Theatre, and Katie Kerr, whom I last saw very nicely in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the ENO.  For both of them, this represents a massive ‘step-up’ in terms of the demands made of them.  They have to encompass 19 musical numbers with not much dialogue in between; some of these numbers, like the new ‘The Cross Country Tour’ and ‘Tony and Cleo’ are staggering show-stoppers that are by themselves pretty much worth the price of the ticket.  In addition to those, however, they must render a good batch of Great American Songbook standards, which audiences know from some of the finest interpreters, sometimes given ‘straight’, but just as often for laughs.

Pete 'n' Keely at Tristan Bates Theatre
Katie Kerr in Pete ‘N’ Keely

There are plenty of laughs, too.  They can be enjoyed on their own terms, mostly; but the more erudite you are in terms of showbiz, the more you will respond to this arch, knowing, camp send-up of self-important celebrities.  In many ways, the humour is so urbane, so clever and sophisticated, it recalls the smart revues of the 60s, not least those featuring our own Millicent Martin, David Kernan and Julia McKenzie.  These are top-flight names, and in, a sense this kind of very ‘light’ material really cries out for professional heavyweights to do it full justice.  One can’t help but wonder what – say – performers like Julie Atherton and Simon Lipkin might make of these roles, where you often have to turn on a sixpence to make the jokes work.  That is the stuff of speculation, of course.  Here we have a talented pair giving it all they’ve got, and that’s a lot.

There is also some touching sentiment – in the second half – not too much to get mawkish, but just enough to vary the tone in a deliciously bitter-sweet way.  Kerr carries most of this, and demonstrates a range rather broader than Bardlsey is given: I think it’s clear where writer James Hindman’s sympathies lay in this battle of the sexes, and James Waldrop’s lyrics to Brady’s music support his view.  We have to be on her side.  And we are.  And it’s great to discover that, in the midst of all the cheesy mayhem, we actually take them – and especially her – seriously, and care.

En route, they have many splendid moments.  There are also occasions of less secure phrasing, doubtful intonation and audibility, but perhaps these will be resolved with a few more runs and adjustments to the tech.  As for the actual blend of their voices, well theirs is perhaps not yet the ideal mix: the vocal temperaments of Bardlsey and Kerr seem to be very different.  They do what they can to blend, but they often have their hands full in finding the right balance of colours and timbres.

For the purposes of a pleasant, entertaining evening in the theatre, however, I think we can forgive a few rough edges.  We could reconcile ourselves to understanding this as an illustration of their drifting apart (but, if we do, it doesn’t help to explain their legendary status as ‘singing sweethearts’, nor prepare us for their reunion).  Never mind.  It’s great fun and if you just focus on the plentiful goodies, you’ll have a ball.

Until 20 May 2017

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