REVIEW: The Spitfire Grill, Union Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The Spitfire Grill at the Union Theatre
Photo: Darren Bell

The Spitfire Grill
Union Theatre
24 July 2015
5 Stars

Take a bare space. Light it with insight and skill. Add an appropriate, both for the score and the space, band. Make sure the band is led by a musician interested equally in the score and accompaniment. Cast the roles with care and an understanding of potential. Ensure that everyone is in the same canoe, paddling upstream with equal vigour. Take measured, considered risks. Open. Cross fingers that the audience sees and hears what you do.

If someone were to publish a collection of “recipes for good productions of unknown or new musicals” then, based on his production of The Spitfire Grill, now playing at the Union Theatre, Alastair Knights’ contribution would be along those lines, because that is the sense his clever, spirited and wholly engaging production engenders.

Based upon Lee David Zlotoff’s 1986 film of the same name, this musical version of The Spitfire Grill boasts an unusual collaboration at its heart. Composer James Valco and Lyricist Fred Alley jointly produced the book. The musical debuted Off-Broadway in 2001 after receiving the Richard Rodgers Production Award; that honour was bestowed upon it by a committee which included Lynn Ahrens, Sheldon Harnick, and Richard Maltby Jnr, and which was chaired by Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim was, as usual, on the money.

The Spitfire Grill is a musical treat. James Valco’s score is richly rewarding and creates a genuinely engaging musical atmosphere which helps shape and drive the narrative. He creates a true musical world for the characters and, within that world, each character has tunes and phrases which assist in illuminating them and their part in the story. It does not feel like a Sondheim score, but it has a similar effect. The songs are derived from the situation, the place, the pulse of the narrative; they are not grafted on as afterthoughts or fancy trimming.

There are plenty of thrilling musical passages, some gentle and heartbreaking ones, as well as joyful and colourful (and tuneful) numbers. It’s the kind of score which engulfs you with its charm and spirit and, at the end, you just want to listen to it again.

In no small part, this is because of Simon Holt’s precise musical direction. Balance is often an issue for productions at the Union Theatre, but not here. The band properly accompanies the singers and takes it lead from them. Diction is at a premium, and rightly so. Most impressively, Holt permits and supports the singers in occasional very soft singing. This kind of embracing of acoustic sound is so unusual in these days of over-amplification that the effect is spellbinding. Honest, penetrating performances suffused with lustrous musicianship: rare and rewarding.

Knights, for his part, also excels. It is rarer than hearing acoustic delivery of songs to have a director of musicals who does not want to “put his stamp” on a musical work. But Knights is such an one: a theatrical unicorn. Everything he does with the piece is designed to illuminate text and character and to establish mood, truthfulness and inspiration. He keeps the pace up, gently allows the characters and situations to reveal complexity, and steers well clear of mawkish sentimentality. It’s all judged with a terrifically clear eye and, most importantly, every corner of the production is awash with heart.

His decision to open the production with a bare stage is both practical and inspirational. As the story starts, the central character, Perchance Talbot (Percy) is alone and essentially bereft of anything, having just been released from prison. So, having her appear on stage alone in a bare space fits, exactly, the circumstances that the book and score explore at the outset.

When Percy arrives in Gilead, Wisconsin, she still has nothing and, as she discovers, there is not much happening in Gilead. So the lack of sets in Gilead emphasises the barren nature of the town. But as Percy has an affect on the Gilead residents with whom she interacts, Gilead comes back to life, finds its own sense of worth, through and as a result of the townsfolk interacting with Percy. Like a piece of grit inside the shell, Percy irritates and transforms. Where there was silence, melancholy and defeat, there comes open acceptance, trust and hope. When Hannah, the cranky owner of the titular diner, impulsively introduces a fresh, clean, vibrantly gingham tablecloth into the Gilead world, you know the pearls can start to sparkle in the light.

The plot is unpredictable, refreshingly, even though, at first, it seems otherwise. Knights plays with this beautifully. The performances are zesty and nuanced, but they seem like they are familiar too – there is a kind of gestalt summoning of impressions and influences from countless American shows and films. But nothing is as it seems, and Knights ensures that the surprises, when they come, are genuinely awkward or confrontational or overwhelming. Only the hardest of hearts would not be reaching for a handkerchief at some point in the second Act – such is the aching beauty and fundamentally life-affirming nature of Knights’ vision here.

Of course, good casting is an essential attribute of a great director, and Knights is in top form in relation to the casting here.

In the central role of Percy, the transformative agent for Gilead and its folk, Belinda Wollaston is captivating in every way. From the first, beautiful and arresting a cappella notes in “A Ring Around The Moon”, through the humourous “Out Of The Frying Pan” and exhilarating “Shoot The Moon”, to the stunning “Shine”, Wollaston uses her glorious voice to give full throttle to Valcq’s score. It is pure delight to listen to Wollaston animate every phrase and tune. Her emotional connection to the music and text is overwhelming complete.

So too is Wollaston’s immersion into the psyche of Percy. She is wholly convincing as the freed jailbird, frightened of her past and possible future, desperate not to offend anyone, repressing her tears and fears and awkwardly, tentatively, completely unworldly in every way, finding her feet in Gilead. Mastering a difficult accent and hiding her natural beauty, Wollaston’s bruised and brash Percy is exemplary in every respect.

Three scenes really stand out: her abrupt, shattering refusal of Sheriff Joe’s proposal of marriage (before he actually makes it); her confession to Shelby, her new best friend, about the tragic circumstances which saw her serve time; and the intense “mother to mother” scene with the cantankerous Hannah where cards are laid on the table. Covering the full spectrum from closed, almost vacant, control to raw, exposed, beating heart, Wollaston ensures Percy Talbott is a character you will long remember, and always love.

Wollaston has excellent support from the rest of the cast. Chris Kiely makes Sherrif Joe completely believable and his frustration at the pre-Percy Gilead is palpable. He has a fine voice and even though he does not have a dark baritone quality to his voice, he owns the songs he sings and makes them work. Andrew Borthwick is excellent as the shady visitor; completely convincing and heart-breaking despite not uttering a word or singing a note. His eyes and body language were remarkably apt for communicating emotion and intent.

Hans Rye makes an excellent Caleb, an ordinary man frustrated with the way time and Gilead have moved on so that being an honest hard-working man is no longer enough. He throbs with angst and insecurity, not the least because the women in the town have his measure. His voice is warm and strong; precisely right for his character. As the village gossip and inter meddler, Effy, Katie Brennan is a riot of intrigue, chatter and charm. Brennan plays her right against the line; for quite some time, it is not clear whether Effy is vile or not. This makes her more interesting, a more complete character. Brennan sings with the same attack and gusto Effy devotes to gossip.

As Shelby, Percy’s saviour in the kitchen at the diner and her closest confidante, Natalie Law is sweet, warm and decent in every way. Law shows Shelby’s emergence from under the thumb of Caleb very clearly, and without rancour. The blossoming of her friendship with Percy is a genuine delight to behold. Vocally, Law is slightly uneasy in the first Act, but really comes into her own in the second Act, and her passionate delivery of “Wild Bird” is a true highlight.

Hilary Harwood completes the cast as the brutally blunt and unforgiving Hannah. Harwood starts somewhat tentatively, but soon hits her stride, finding a clear and direct way to enliven the dour dowager of Gilead. There is something of the Granny Clampett about Harwood’s portrayal which is beguiling. She too seems slightly unsure vocally in Act One occasionally, but nails her numbers in Act Two, with “Way Back Home” an electrifying eleven o’clock number.

Lee Crowley provides excellent choreography (of the gentle kind, not the tap-dancing kind) which perfectly suits proceedings and Jack Weir’s lighting is exceptional and economical, effectively using light to accentuate and heighten emotion and character.

This is a genuinely terrific production of a great but unfathomably unknown musical. If there was any justice in the world, an entrepreneur would pick this production up and sit it in the West End. With proper support and promotion, this could be a tearaway triumph, the perfect musical antidote to the despair and austerity of modern life.

It is a better production of a musical than many that have played in the West End in recent years. It’s a particular triumph for Knights, Holt and Wollaston.

The Spitfire Grill runs until August 15, 2015 at the Union Theatre

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