Friday 8 July 2016

On the Twentieth Century at the Guildhall, or, It's About Life on a Train

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 2nd July.

Regular readers may have realised that I have a real soft spot for what I think of as old fashioned musical comedy. By this I mean shows which are real musical comedies – witty, plot on the silly side, happy ending assured – musicals, one might put it, as they once were. This 1978 show (music Cy Coleman, book & lyrics by the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green) has had a recent London outing, off-West End at the Union, but I wasn't able to catch it – so I was delighted when I discovered the Guildhall was reviving it for the musical theatre class's end of year show. I was even more delighted when I started to scan through the programme book on Saturday evening and discovered that the director was Martin Connor and the choreographer Bill Deamer – the team responsible some years back now for the magnificent Babes in Arms revival at Chichester (still, I'm tempted to say, the best musical revival I've ever seen there). And I was not disappointed – yes there are some uneven aspects to the evening but taken all in all, it's performed with great panache, and that vital sense of pure enjoyment which says yes, we know this is all a bit silly, but isn't it such fun. Indeed it is.

The story takes us back to the glory days of the American railroad, and the Twentieth Century locomotive as it takes sixteen hours to transport our ensemble from Chicago to New York City. During this time down on his luck theatrical impresario, Oscar Jaffee (Theo Boyce) must persuade his former leading lady Lily Garland aka. Mildred Plotka (Claudia Jolly) to abandon Hollywood and return to the stage as Mary Magdalene in the greatest production of all time. If you have any experience of this type of show you'll already know what the outcome is, but that doesn't lessen the fun of finding out how it happens. Both leads show real promise. Jolly does the switch from unglamorous rehearsal pianist to leading lady very nicely, in the utterly ludicrous flashback "Veronique" (about the woman who starts the Franco-Prussian War – Comden & Green's sequence of unproduced shows is one of the finest aspects of the book). She's at her best though in the Noel Coward take-off scene in the middle of Act Two (where the increasingly deranged use of the names Cyril and Rodney is another highlight). Boyce deploys an appropriate matinee idol physicality to command the stage, as he must, and is thus convincing in terms of persuading a whole sequence of people to do what he wants them to, even though it may not be in their best interests. Both performers could, however, have been vocally stronger, though perhaps this was an issue with sound design with orchestra (at least on the brass side where I was sitting) sometimes in danger of over-powering singers. For a leading man Boyce could cut through the texture more forcefully in places, and Jolly did not always sound quite secure, or sufficiently full voiced at the top of her range. Nevertheless, their strengths far outweigh these weaknesses.

The leads are ably supported by a strongly characterised ensemble. The best performances in the show to my mind came from Michael Levy Harris and Carl Stone as Jaffee's long-suffering sidekicks Oscar and Oliver. They play beautifully off each other throughout the evening particularly in numbers like "Five Zeroes" and "Sign Lily" at the top of Act Two. Also very fine is Bessie Carter's Letitia Peabody Primrose, who gets "Repent" (one of the wittiest numbers) all to herself and is the catalyst for the finest, if politically incorrect, number of all – "She's a Nut" – which is the one I haven't been able to get out of my brain since. Also giving a strong comic turn is Josh Dylan's Bruce Granit - the idea that he is really a little more in love with himself than with Lily was a clever touch. Among the minor roles, Ellen Francis makes the most of "The Indian Maiden's Lament", and I was sorry Abigail Richardson's Agnes wasn't given more to do by the script. The ensemble meanwhile do fine work switching between a variety of roles, and deserve an award for effective navigation of a confined set (it is miraculous in itself that nobody ever falls out of this train).

The strengths of Connor & Deamer's Babes in Arms are evident again here. Their love for the work shines through, they keep things moving along nicely, where the choreography can let rip it does, but there's some excellent moments within the confined spaces of the cabins. Considering the show must have been on a tight budget it disguises it very effectively, and I didn't feel that sets or costumes needed anything more. Dan Jackson draws strong playing from his musicians, who seem to revel in the score, the brass section in particular sounded like it was having the time of its life.

As a whole this show is not the finest work of any of its authors. Coleman did better work musically in City of Angels, Comden & Green sparkled more in Wonderful Town and Bells are Ringing. But there is lots to enjoy in this one, and it is certainly a show deserving of revival. Connor & Deamer's Chichester Babes in Arms also started life, I learned from the programme, at the Guildhall. It would be nice to think this might get another run on that larger stage.

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