REVIEW: Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Book tickets for Promises Promises at Southwark Playhouse
Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood

Promises Promises
Southwark Playhouse
Tuesday, 17th January
4 Stars
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The great king of popular song in the 1960s and 70s, Burt Bacharach, among just a handful of stage works of one kind or another wrote a single full-length musical theatre score, in collaboration with his greatest lyricist partner, Hal David, and to a script by the peerless king of comedy, Neil Simon (developed from his film, ‘The Apartment’).  It enjoyed respectable success in its day, including launching one of the songwriting pair’s most durable hits, ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’; but it has not been seen often since.  That the perfectionist Bacharach, after this lone foray into the form, never again ventured into its mysteries is – perhaps – eloquently significant.  The hermetically professional composer does not lightly discuss such things, but there must be some reasons why he has never again attempted to engage with his public in this way.

I wish I knew what those reasons were because the work we have here richly deserves our attention.  It is a lush, fine, gorgeous, romantic, exciting, panoramic spectacle, where the score is the equal in importance of any of the characters in the story.  The narrative is a generic ‘big city’ fable of the little guy, Chuck Baxter, pitted against the anonymous ruthlessness of metropolitan life; love conquers all adversities – eventually – and brings him together with a worthy, if sophisticatedly compromised partner in the shape of a little gal, Fran, who has to go through trials and tribulations to become worthy of him.  It is therefore partly an inversion of the traditional musical comedy ‘quest’, where the male must test himself against the problems of the world, overcoming his own failings along the way, in order to be rewarded with the trophy of a blemishless damsel.  As in another musical with a book by Simon, ‘Sweet Charity’, the heroine here is far from pure and never simple, and her journey is the harder, more difficult one.

Book tickets for Promises Promises at Southwark Playhouse
Gabriel Vick, Lee Ormsby, Craig Armstrong and Martin Dickinson in Promises Promises.

Director Bronagh Lagan sees this moral puzzle at the heart of the drama, and with her team of set and costume designer Simon Wells, choreographer Cressida Carre (creator of brilliantly integrated movement and dance breaks), with all-important lighting by Derek Anderson and sound by Owen Lewis, she achieves a strong sense of urban unity about everything that happens, moving pretty fluidly from one cinematic-style scene to the next (as long as the machinery of the scene changes cooperates, that is).  Central to this conception is a belief in the dark, ‘film noir’-like elements of the tale: each character is morally ambiguous; people are troubled; they have aspirations, but they fail to reach them, damaging themselves – and others – in the process.  And there is a lot of disquieting stuff here to darken the day of any reasonably enlightened contemporary audience: misogyny; bribery; workplace favouritism and bullying; blackmail; depression; physical violence and suicide.  To say nothing of the relentless drudgery and pointlessness of ‘modern times’.  Well, yes.  But then, film-noir has an essentially pessimistic view of humankind, and I’m not sure that all audiences will find this an altogether completely convincing interpretation of the story.

Book tickets for Promises Promises at Southwark Playhouse
Paul Robinson and Daisy Maywood.

Moreover, at the same time, there is a crackling, brilliantly witty script by one of the masters of ‘light’ comedy.  Baxter leads the way in blazing a trail through the crushing impersonality of life with his sparkling naïve wit, and everyone along the way is given more than enough to keep the fun alive and intense (provided the all-important cues get picked up smartly, and the rhythms of the Simon’s exquisitely honed dialogue are faithfully articulated).  There is a native New Yorker in the company – Baxter’s omnipresent doctor neighbour, Dr Dreyfuss (a masterly characterisation by the hugely experienced John Guerrasio, a gem-like ornament in this fine cast) – who keeps reminding us of the ‘echt’ voice of the city, and how to combine both attack and pathos in the dialogue.

Meanwhile, the love interest is the compromised Fran (the serenely poised Daisy Maywood – an equally uncanny stand-in for the youthful Shirley MacLaine, the other half of the star billing in the movie).  She confronts loneliness, disappointment, anger (at herself as much as anyone else) and hopelessness, before managing to climb out of her self-destructive spiral.  Around her are workplace colleagues and competitors (Claire Doyle, Natalie Moore-Williams, Emily Squibb and Alex Young).  Her exploitative boss is Mr Sheldrake (the icily dapper and calculating Paul Robinson – who only latterly comes to reveal any kind of a heart, especially in his two solo numbers, which are given here particularly well).  And then there are the middle managers who use and manipulate Chuck: Craig Armstrong, Ralph Bogard, Martin Dickinson and Lee Ormsby.  Other parts – and they are legion – are played by this supporting troupe.  There are many stand-out moments, but Alex Young’s main role as the vampish bar-room pick-up walks away with the start of the second act in one of Simon’s finest ever sketches: she gets more laughs in that one scene than anyone else in the rest of the evening.  And I’ve seen the show twice already, and laughed at this magnificent turn with equal relish the second time around.

Book tickets for Promises Promises at Southwark Playhouse
Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood

Nevertheless, the story belongs to the young lovers.  Combined with a fairly faithful recreation of his movie scenario, Neil Simon gives the hero considerable latitude with his ‘inner voice’ to comment upon himself, his situation, and the unfolding of his story.  Played by the lovably hapless Graham Vick (an uncanny Doppelganger for the young Jack Lemmon, who played the role in the Billy Wilder film), he holds the whole show together with limitless charm and self-effacing graciousness.  He also has to carry, either alone or in tandem with others, half the musical numbers in the show, including five solos – way beyond the demands made of anyone else.  He is more than a match for this, with his eternally restless and watchful eyes, his droll turn of phrase, his easy way with one-liners and knowing banter with the audience.  Maywood does everything she can not to make a mawkish sap out of Fran, playing the role pretty damn straight – at the expense of some of the fizz in her lines, but always with sincerity and total commitment: she sings her three solos as if they were written yesterday, so full of poignant emotional truth.

Book tickets for Promises Promises at Southwark Playhouse
Gabriel Vick and Alex Young.

The production’s palette paints him and the other drones of corporate New York almost exclusively in monochrome.  The women warm things up a little with splashes of Eastman-Kodak colour, in a splendid and yet also restrained array of outfits, coordinated by Fiona Parker (with hair and makeup by Cynthia de la Rosa).  And Ben M Rogers’ projections beautifully create locations in a smoothly coherent manner.  But the real hero of the hour is the score, under the watchful guidance of MD Joe Louis Robinson, who is equally at home playing big band leader, or subtle accompanist.  The arrangements themselves, supervised by Bacharach expert Elliot Davis, come via him from Steve Edis’ 10-year old parts from the Sheffield Crucible production: they come up fresh as daisies with his company, making the music glow and see the into you like the very air of New York itself.

And this is the ‘must-see’ show of the moment, with a glamorous audience hurrying to get in on the fun.  This is a production which is sure to become slicker and more complex as it matures (in albeit a brief run: it plays at Southwark until just 18th February).  And, yes, ultimately it keeps its promises.  All of them.

Until 18 February 2017

Photos: Claire Bilyard


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