Julian Eaves reviews George and Ira Gershwins’ musical Strike Up The Band at Upstairs At The Gatehouse.
Strike Up The Band
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
8th March 2019
Rarities don’t get much rarer than this: after nearly a century, London finally gets to see a professional production of George and Ira Gershwins’ 1927 musical comedy, with a satirical, anti-war book by George S. Kaufman, all about a pointless conflict between the USA and Switzerland provoked by the contentious subject of …. cheese. Revived notably for a production back in the mid-1990s at Goodspeed Theatre, Connecticut, and for a couple of USA concert versions since, the script still hits hard with its stingingly apt and relevant jibes at American warmongering overseas and neo-fascism at home (which we recognise so painfully well now in the Trump era), Kaufman’s original work points out with harsh clarity that, after all these years, not much seems to have changed.
If this sounds like strong meat to mix with the light-and-fluffy world of George’s sprightly melodies and Ira’s intricate rhymes, well, yes, it is. The show lurches backwards and forth between tones and styles with disconcerting unpredictability, trying to find a way through the heady, volatile mix. One moment, we have a Gilbertian ensemble, with tunes piled up on top of each other to create a sense of the social scale. Then, we get a typical ‘vaudeville style’ comedy routine for a couple of actors, packed full of wise-cracks and tomfoolery. And then, we hurtle into gritty social criticism of the kind that Elmer Rice or Cliff Odets might have written – or been about to. There are lots of times when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and this doesn’t make life easy for the creative team or cast.
Director Mark Giesser certainly has some experience in material of this kind, but even he seems at a loss as to how to marry the disparate and mutually competitive elements of this strange beast, as does choreographer Orley Quick, whose background seems hardly to have prepared her for knowing what to do with such idiomatically precise material. Added to that, most of the cast have only limited experience in handling comedy of this particular kind and the team (if indeed they have worked together as one) of director and choreographer has only partial success in enabling them to find out how to make it function in performance. Furthermore, the direction is often unable to offer anything other than straight lines of performers, delivering their speeches, apparently while we wait to work out what on earth to do next. With subject matter this challenging, the sense that there is not an overall, compelling conviction driving the production becomes overwhelming. Added to that, there seems to have been a woefully inadequate budget for decor, with Camille Etchart’s threadbare sets looking sad and neglected even in the modestly proportioned space upstairs at the Gatehouse pub in Highgate. Julia Scrimieri’s costumes fair better, but merely highlight the ‘school play’ look of the production. Will Leighton’s lighting possibly might have helped extend the ‘physical’ world inhabited by the presentation, but it doesn’t opt for doing anything other than the expected and obvious. The whole thing takes on the air of a ‘scratch’ performance. If you can stomach this, then perhaps you can manage to enjoy it.
One area where money definitely has been spent, however, and arguably too much, is on the band. Bobby Goulder has a good sized pit band and the director has decided to make the most of this asset and place them in the middle of the upstage. This enables them to drown out whatever the performers sing in front of them (Harry Emerson’s sound design barely gives them any support), and the orchestrations – a fascinating mix of original 1927 parts and Goulder’s confections for this production – allow them to do this time and time again. Singers are forced to push their voices, often young – still developing – voices, as they wade through the lengthy and noisesome score. You feel a sense that they relax a bit in the large choral numbers (which are superb, this is full of lovely music by Gershwin), but equally, you really feel their pain in just about every other number. Oh, matters are not helped by the production’s running time being advertised as 1 hour and 50 minutes, including an interval, when – in truth – it runs to nearly an hour longer than that: something worth bearing in mind when you are planning your toilet visits!
So, in the midst of all these (very uphill) challenges, how does the cast fare? I am quite sure that the decisions they have made have all been authorised (at least) by the director. Richard Emerson offers us a one-note characterisation as the US cheese king, Horace J. Fletcher, which quickly bores and then gradually irritates. Beth Burrows probably comes off best of the lot with a part that has most dramatic mettle do it, the agro-industrialist’s daughter, Joan Fletcherd, but again has to swing wildly between opposing moods. Paul Biggin’s other half of the main love interest, Jim Townsend, makes an energetic stab at welding the contradictory elements of his role together, but it’s an impossible task for him, especially when asked to play a weak, humiliated cypher – not a character it is easy to warm to. Pippa Winslow is one of the more experienced performers in the team, but again gives the impression she is always doing the director’s bidding instead of making the comedy her own (which I am sure she is more than capable of doing). As the soubrette, Anne Draper, Charlotte Christensen is sprightly and vivacious and I’m sure she would be even more appealing could we hear more of what she sings. Playing opposite her, Adam Scott Pringle seems everything a juvenile should be, but – again – is exhausted by having to fight against that band. Two more seasoned performers, Robert Finlayson (as the bossy Colonel Holmes) and Nicholas McBride (as C Edgar Sloane), are as stymied as nearly everyone else seems to be, as is Sammy Graham’s winningly gauche Bob.
However, alone out of the whole crew, the one who seems to have grasped the very peculiar and odd essence of the comedy here is David Francis’ George Spelvin: his mastery of multiple-personas and running gags is sure-footed and nimble; he is also lucky in that the script never demands he do things in quick succession that are the polar opposite of each other – a very lucky break- nor does he have to sing much. So fortunate! When he is on-stage, therefore, you can sit back and relish the production, contemplating what might have been, had they had a better script, director, designer, musical director, choreographer, and so on. It’s jolly hard luck on the rest of the others, who, through no fault of their own, have an almost constant struggle on their hands.
So, is it worth it? For people who absolutely insist on filling annoying gaps in their encyclopaedic knowledge of musical theatre, then it is – on balance – worth the sit. If you’re just looking for a fun night out, you may find this rather below expectations. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, especially in the productions of its home Ovation company (of which this is definitely NOT an off-shoot), has a terrific reputation for bringing quality small-scale productions to an interested and educated fan-base. This, on the whole, is probably one they may well wish to keep quiet about.