Thursday, 24 May 2012

Flora the Red Menace in Walthamstow, or, Break Heart, I prithee Break

I first saw this show in a production by the Dundee Rep at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 2004. I fell for it then and have been a devoted advocate ever since, an absolute believer that Kander and Ebb's first collaboration is a musical theatre masterpiece. I was thus thrilled when I saw that a London fringe production was being put on (the first professional production in the city in 17 years and, as far as I'm aware the first professional production in the UK since Dundee in 2004). As I say I was thrilled, but I was also afraid that I would be disappointed. Thankfully this was not the case. Everything in this production is not perhaps as it would be in my ideal staging. The company is not as uniformly well cast as might be desirable. But there is plenty to like in both, overall they allow this great work to shine, and, above all, this is an evening blessed with a stunning performance by Katy Baker in the lead role (deservedly nominated for an Offie).

For those who don't know this work, it is set in depression era New York and follows the attempt of our heroine Flora to get a start in life (alongside a community of her friends), and as a result her meeting and romance with Harry who turns out to be a Communist. Both book and lyrics are often witty, and the musical includes, for my money, some of Kander and Ebb's best numbers including Flora's introductory 'The Kid Herself', Harry's paean to the Communist party ('Sign Here'), and the little gem of a trio 'Where Did Everybody Go'. And yet this show has not entered the mainstream and remains better known for giving Liza Minnelli her start.

Director Randy Smartnick advances a view in his programme notes that the reason the show has not become a success like Cabaret or Chicago is because it “has always tried to take itself too seriously.” To combat this he has, in his own words, introduced “a little Broadway cheese.” As far as I could see the main way this manifested itself was in quite a lot of fairly standard Broadway big number choreography via Kate McPhee. Now there is a great deal of wit in lyrics and music in this show and some of these attempts to play this up work quite well. But this remains a serious piece of work. If you want a fluffy musical go watch Crazy for You. I think that seriousness is actually a key part of what makes the show so special.

I have a suspicion that the other problem may be that some people feel the politics are too light – that is that the show falls between two stools. I don't find that – but then I prefer my political satire to have Flanders and Swann wit rather than The Thick of It profanities. The destructive nature of Party rigidity, the doom pronounced on someone for crossing a picket line, the threat to the principle of independence are powerfully represented through Flora. There is much more at stake in this show than the fate of our lovers.

A successful production of Flora depends particularly on the lead and this is the other reason why theatergoers should be flocking to Walthamstow. Baker's Flora wears her heart in her face and in such an intimate venue watching the emotions so freely expressed there is a powerful experience. Baker doesn't just seize the money numbers like 'Sing Happy' but the little moments like 'Dear Love', the Act One finale. Despite being surrounded by giant pink hearts and flashing lights Baker's Flora remains fragile, poised in hope and fear. As the evening drew on her performance bound me, and brought tears to my eyes.

The quality of the rest of the cast is a bit more variable and this means that their doubling as passersby/random Communists is less successful than in the other two productions of the show I've seen. Generally speaking too voices are just a bit too small for their parts. Sam Linscott's Harry transcends this shortage of vocal heft by a compelling characterisation – he really does look like a stereotypical Communist activist, and there is real chemistry between him and Baker. I was less keen on Ellen Verenicks's Charlotte who somehow doesn't quite fully inhabit the part but delivers with Baker and Linscott an excellent account of the act two trio previously mentioned. Of the rest I would pick out Kimberley Moses's Maggie, who also doubles well as Mr Stanley's obnoxious secretary. The one bizarre casting decision is Will Pearce's Willy. His character is supposed to be a clarinettist. This is a crucial part of the character, and in other productions I've seen the occasional bit of on-stage clarinet playing adds needed colour to the music. Pearce although he occasionally brandishes the instrument never plays it. I find it difficult to believe that no clarinet playing actors were available in a city the size of London, and Pearce is not so special as a non-clarinet playing actor to justify his being cast in the role.

But the real test of a production is whether it transcends what flaws there may be. It is a sterner test when you are presenting it to somebody who knows the work very well and treasures it. This production passes that test. It confirms what a masterpiece this show is. And Katy Baker's Flora broke my heart. If you know and love this musical as I do, then you will want to see this revival. If you don't know the show this is a rare opportunity for discovery and one not to be missed. In short, go.

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