Heaven! This is heaven!
Director and producer team John and Katie Plews celebrate 20 glorious years of presenting the finest fringe shows in town with a stunning revival of probably the very best stage adaptation of a film musical, with lots of extra music supplied by the immortal Irving Berlin . Matthew White’s and Howard Jacques’ perfect translation of the 1935 RKO movie (with its witty, elegant screenplay by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott – and others) enchanted audiences in the West End a handful of years ago in White’s own production. He was on hand in the audience at Press Night to see it all come up fresh as a daisy again and he looked utterly delighted with what John and his team (assistant director, Chloe Christian) have done with it in the 160-odd seater space, with a cast of just 12 and a band of 6. Arranged in an intimate traverse, with Emily Bestow’s dark but very handsome art deco design, lit impeccably by another house regular, Sam Waddington, and with Nico Menghini’s cleverly balanced sound, the pacing and blocking of the show are flawless.
Chris Whittaker’s sublime choreography (assisted by Susannah Owen) has, in my experience, never been better: inspired by Astaire’s own original work, assisted by Hermes Pan, for the very well known dance arrangements for the original film, we get a miraculous evocation of the period, conjuring the grandeur and spectacle of the cinema, but in the comparatively tiny performance area: this achieves its apotheosis in the simply staggering ‘Cheek to Cheek’, with delightful terpsichorean moments punctuating the action every few minutes along the way. It is, after all, a dancing show, and this is work of the very highest order, easily the equal of anything else available in the capital, and at a fraction of the cost. Not for nothing had the entire run virtually sold out even before opening night: by the time you read this, there may be no more tickets available, but I wonder if Katie might be able to fit in another matinee or two somewhere along the way. (Although, I wonder if even this remarkable company could cope with a schedule that gruelling!)
The success of the execution, however, is all down to the casting, which couldn’t be better. Joshua Lay is a true star of West End stature in the Fred Astaire role of Jerry Travers, exquisitely mastering his by turns balletic and vaudevillesque moves, while carrying off the dry martini sense of humour in a manner every bit as good as anything seen five years ago at the Aldwych. What is present here that, by all accounts, was less obvious the first time around, is a real sense of onstage chemistry between the leads: here, Lay is deliciously partnered by Joanne Clifton’s sassy and sharp as a pin rendition of the Ginger Rogers role of Dale Tremont. Famous for her work in ‘Strictly’ and stepping directly out of a long tour of ‘Flashdance’ (stylistically, a million miles away from what she is now being asked to do), she has completely grasped the right tone and approach for this intelligent high comedy with music and dancing: there is romantic electricity between the stars from the very first moment, sustained brilliantly all the way through their many charming adventures and misunderstandings, right up to the final, blissful convergence.
Around them revolves a constellation of other parts that are infused with this happy ambience. Darren Benedict, in the Edward Everett-Horton part of Horace Hardwick, is chirpy and neurotic, with gleefully apt timing, letting his innumerable unwitting one-liners fall exactly where they will cause most mirth. Opposite him, Ellen Verenieks is apparently made to play the Helen Broderick part of Madge Hardwick. Matthew James Willis makes a funnily pompous Beddini, and Samuel Haughton is an engagingly different Bates, making the very most of his 2nd act multiple impersonations and eradicating all memories of Eric Blore’s performance. Other parts are played by the vivacious ensemble of Leanne Groutage, Olivia Sinclair, Grace Usher, Rhys Ashcroft, Marcus J Foreman and Grant Jackson. And they all look a total knock-out in Bestow’s gasp-inducing costumes that get more and more lovely as the show progresses (supervision by Joseph Hodges), surmounted by Jessica Plews’ splendid wigs and hair and make-up advice.
The music emanates from Charlie Ingles’ crack dance band, housed aloft in the musicians’ gallery, with Jonathan Lee, Keys 2, Dan Taylor, a bright trumpet and flugel horn, Matt Smith, a warm and sexy trombone, Matthew Hinchcliffe, various woodwind, and Jake Perrett, percussion (keeping the beat tidy, and never overwhelming the textures). It is to Dan Glover to whom we are more than indebted for the terrific adaptations of Chris Walker’s West End orchestrations: time and again the tunes – so familiar – come up sounding mint new. Ingles himself has also just taken leave of absence from the ‘Flashdance’ tour and has achieved something rather like magic with his pinpoint and thoroughly idiomatic direction of the music, all achieved in virtually no time at all.
For, if you would please reflect for a moment, the production has been brought together in record time. The leads, in particular, had mere days to pull it all together before they opened to the public. It is testament to the colossal professionalism that is the trademark of this theatre that they have done such a stupendous job. One of these days, a book will be written chronicling the achievements of this extraordinary theatrical family, whose many children include some of the most famous names in British theatre, their faces covering the walls of the saloon bar, and posters of previous productions tightly covering the walls up the staircase: at Press Night, also in the audience was director and choreographer Racky Plews, another graduate of this remarkable and precious venue. And while we’re on the audience, we also rejoiced to be in the company of such entertainment lights as Judith Chalmers, Lesley Garrett, and even the grand-daughter of Berlin himself, amongst many others. In circumstances like these, what can one do but just face the music and dance for joy!
Until 28 January 2018