London seems to be developing a nice little line in revivials of neglected musicals in small venues, or possibly this has been going on for years and I've only just woken up to it. On the heels of the magnificent Jermyn Street Theatre revival of Anyone Can Whistle at Easter, comes a revival of Bells are Ringing at the Union Theatre in Southwark. Apparently, so the lady behind the bar told me, the theatre has been running for thirteen years, but until I came across the details of this show on the web, entirely by accident, I had never even known it existed. The management may rest assured I shall be keeping a close eye on their programmes from now on.
Bells are Ringing is a 1956 musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (better known to me at any rate as the geniuses behind the same element of Bernstein's neglected gem Wonderful Town) and music by Jule Styne (better known to practically everyone for his collaboration with Sondheim on Gypsy). Inspired by the real life Mary Printz and her Belles Celebrity Answering Service it tells the story of what happens when Ella Peterson (Anna-Jane Casey) becomes too involved in the life of her client Jeff Moss (Gary Milner).
As regulars will know I place a high value, probably higher than others, on the book of a musical and there are plenty of gems here, not least because of Comden and Green's wealth of playful cultural references. To give just two there is Sandor's fake record company, rumbled by the delivery boy, who points out that all these customers keep ringing up for Beethoven's Tenth Symphony, and, my particular favourite, Ella's former employees, the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company. The songs include several which are now established standards, such as The Party's Over) and the wonderfully playful Is It a Crime? about Casey's problematic moral choices. This richness, and Casey's mesmeric performance, means that one is drawn past the fact that the minor characters are a bit underwritten in places (it would have been lovely to have had more of Sandor and Sue's disastrous romance) and the whole situation around Ella's falsified identity is just that little bit too easily resolved. As a character, Ella recalled to me both Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town and Flora Metsouaris in that neglected gem Flora, the Red Menace both of which are ultimately that bit more rounded as complete shows.
But, as I say, what makes this revival is the magnificent performance of Anna-Jane Casey as Ella. I previously saw her as the original Dot in the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of Sunday in the Park with George and it struck me as very unfair that Casey was not transferred with Daniel Evans to London and Broadway. I'd like to think this was Casey's choice. She is a performer with genuine star quality which, as I've mentioned before, means that whenever she's on stage you can't take your eyes off her. In this tiny theatre the energy of her performance is palpable, and it lights up everything around her. Scene after scene is sparked up by little asides, glances thrown at the audience, even the simple artful raising of an eyebrow. The voice is admirably suited to the part, light or belting as required – and the musical range of the part is considerable. If I had to pick a favourite number, it would be the rousing declaration of her intention to return to the Bonjour Tristess Brassiere Company (I'm Going Back), but it's a damn close run thing. Quite frankly, there are not enough adjectives to describe how great her performance is, and the only thing to be said is that it's a shame that so few people will be able to see it (unless a miracle happens and somebody transfers the show for a limited run in a slightly larger space – which goodness knows it deserves every bit as much as any of the Menier's triumphs). The other thing to be said is that somebody, somewhere should be preparing a revival of Wonderful Town and casting Casey as Ruth Sherwood.
Casey is well partnered by Gary Milner as struggling playwright Jeff Moss who matches her move for move, and they in turn are well supported by delightful character turns from Fenton Gray as Sandor, Corinna Powlesland as Sue, and Richard Grieve as Inspector Barnes (and this is without mentioning the hilarious Dr Kitchell (Adam Rhys-Charles), a dentist who composes show tunes on his air hose). In fact, each of the ensemble gets a moment in the sun, and the rest of the time what an ensemble they are, taking on multiple parts (not to mention the scene-shifting), performing dazzling choreography, managing not to knock themselves out on the pillars holding up the roof, and like similar companies at Chichester and the Menier putting many West End shows to shame. Again, one of the great pleasures of a small venue (especially if you're someone like me more used to the distances of the Gods) is being able to see every face – of course this also requires harder work and concentration from performers who have nowhere to hide. Fortunately, they put in the work and there is not a weak link amongst them.
All in all this is a beautifully staged, played and performed revival of a little gem of a show, and boasting an absolutely star knock-out performance from Anna-Jane Casey. In the unlikely event that there are still tickets left (the run ends next weekend) get yourselves down to the Union Theatre, Southwark. I promise you won't be disappointed.
It's hard for me to imagine Bells Are Ringing without Judy Holiday. As for Wonderful Town, I saw a revival on Broadway not too many years ago. It was wonderful and, as I recall, a big hit.
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