Sunday 14 October 2012

Call Me Madam at the Union, or, Just Not Quite Enough Stars

As I can't be whole-heartedly enthusiastic about this revival, let me start with a word of praise for the Union's upcoming schedule, which like so much non-West End stuff seems to get little notice in the mainstream press or indeed elsewhere in the blogosphere. I only hope fellow musical theatre afficionados are paying attention. Coming up there in the next three months we have Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier and Mary Rodgers's Once Upon a Mattress – I can't recall either having been staged in London in my memory, though doubtless somebody will correct me. Whatever else you do in the next few months, if you're a musical theatre fan, give the tiresome long-running nonsense in the West End a miss and head out to Southwark.

On balance you should also head out there for the venue's current production of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. You may know this from the film version which stars Ethel Merman (who originated the role of Mrs Sally Adams on stage) and the incomparable Donald O'Connor (better known as Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain). My recollection of the film was of a patchy experience made by the stars rather than the show, and on the whole the same is true of this production – except that it just hasn't got quite enough stars to achieve the same effect.

The best thing in this performance is Lucy Williamson's performance in the Ethel Merman part. Williamson's particular brilliance in this show is that she manages at pretty much every turn to transcend its limitations. There are little bits of business – gestures, expressions, asides which go to make up a great characterisation. She draws the eye when she's onstage and is consistently funny to watch. If Williamson were on stage the whole time the show would be pretty triumphant. Unfortunately she isn't.

Now this is not to say that the rest of the cast are poor – in fairness to them they are very solid. But that essential spark of uniqueness which Williamson displays amply is missing from the others. There are places when they aren't helped by other choices – for instance the romantic duet when Leo Miles (Kenneth Gibson) and Natalie Lipin (Princess Maria) first meet and fall in love goes straight into an elaborate ballet – it really needed choreography showing more recognition of the emotional narrative of the number – but the fault is not all with the offstage talent. It is also perfectly fair to say that they are not helped by the book which isn't funny enough, the plot which is muddled, and the fact that when you come right down to it there just aren't enough really good musical numbers. But as I said earlier the trouble is that Williamson's performance transcends these limitations – she's so engaging that one is prepared to forgive the slightly sub-par quality of the material. If I had a word of advice for the rest of leads it's that they could all do to be that bit more quirky – have another look at your leading lady, she has it down to a T.

The Union's adventurous musical theatre programming is generally to be commended. Even if this time the work itself rather proves why it isn't more often revived, Lucy Williamson's performance is still well worth the trip to Southwark.

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