Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 4th March 2017.
The previous occasion I saw this show, at Chichester, I enjoyed it but it didn't especially stick in my mind (apart from the Act 2 number Where's My Shoe). So when this revival was announced, I was a little hesitant about booking. Thank goodness I did. This is a fabulous revival in every sense, and sent me out into the street grinning from ear to ear.
The show by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (music) tells the story of the love trials of the staff of a perfume shop in Budapest. At the centre are Mark Umbers's Georg and Scarlett Strallen's Amalia. They have been writing love letters to anonymous correspondents they've never met, whom they know in each case only as Dear Friend. The astute among you will doubtless have spotted the plot. There's also a second, more tempestuous, romance between Katherine Kingsley's Ilona and Dominic Tighe's Kodaly. There are occasional darker moments, but overall this is a lovely, frothy, what I think of as perhaps slightly old fashioned musical comedy. I treasure this type of musical, and what I particularly loved about this show is everybody involved evidently treasures it too. They don't try to make it more than it is, but they treat with love everything it is. The results are rich.
Matthew White's direction, supported by Rebecca Howell's choreography, Paul Farnsworth's set and Paul Pyant's lighting does wonders with the limited Menier space. They blessedly don't try to overthink the work – the settings are faithful to the text, one is never baffled by movement. The elaborate quartet (I think) of revolves move with impressive smoothness throughout to create the distinct worlds of the shop and the street outside. As on other occasions, more choreography is crammed in than one might think possible – Callum Howells (Arpad) in his big Act 2 solo deserves particular credit here. The choreography for the sexually suggestive number Ilona is also comically spot on. The little device of handfuls of leaves or snow to point the changing seasons is used with great charm. Altogether, the thing just looks fabulous.
The ensemble is similarly superb. The eight strong chorus switch seamlessly from customers to diners to passersby and never put a foot wrong. The repeated collective refrains by the shop staff as they bid farewell to customers, increasingly frantically in the Act 2 Finale, are a gem (I was reminded of the refrain “I have written a play!” in the Guildhall's excellent On the Twentieth Century revival last summer). All the leads are strongly cast, but perhaps the two women (Strallen and Kingsley) just edge it. Both have a richness of facial expression, and a fullness of characterisation which it's a privilege to watch in such an intimate space. Strallen's Amalia is both forceful, and yet vulnerable. Kingsley's Ilona is a masterclass in human comedy – her two solos I Resolve, and the hilarious Trip to the Library are particular high points (Harnick's weaving in of The Way of All Flesh and optometrist in the latter are genius touches). Crucially, though Ilona is a figure of fun, the show is never (unlike so much contemporary comedy) cruel or dismissive of her – at bottom she asks for our laughter, but also our sympathy – and Kingsley absolutely nails it.
I suspect this may be too little known a show to UK audiences to merit a West End transfer. But it absolutely deserves one. It's also valuable in another sense. London theatre seems to be obsessed at the moment with commenting on contemporary issues. But there is nothing wrong with a bit escapism – indeed, I am tempted to say in the present moment we need it more than ever. This is one of the finest pieces of joyous escapism I've seen for some time. I'd say it was unmissable, only the final performance was last Saturday.
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