Following a semi-staged production at the Finborough last year, this fully realised version of Ivor Novello's final work now transfers to the newly refurbished Jermyn Street, complete with wonderfully comfy new seating and, from what I could tell, great views from every one of those seats.
With music and original book by Novello, lyrics by Alan Melville and a newly updated book by Richard Stirling, this is a knowing self-referential piece. Novello is only too aware that the days of light frothy nonsense are numbered, threatened by the gritty new musical theatre emerging from the US, most notably from Rodgers and Hammerstein, and he lays his cards on the table in the opening number, Ruritania, a pastiche of a pastiche from a show within the show. What follows is basically St Trinian’s with singing and dancing.
Theatre and music hall star Gay Daventry, Sophie-Louise Dann channelling Joan Sims and Beryl Reid via a saucy Joyce Grenfell, is finding it hard to land herself a hit show and, with money tight, snatches the opportunity to open a drama school in her rambling house on the south coast. With a staff of pupil-hating spinsters who still harbour dreams of hitting the big time themselves and with continuing financial problems, she becomes unwittingly entangled with a pair of smugglers posing as European aristocracy, Paul Slack and Ben Stock finding their inner Arthur Daley and Flash Harry. Throw in a troubled romance between two students, Josh Little and Helena Blackman, sweetness personified, playing it as straight as is humanly possible, and there’s your plot.
Much like the return of Salad Days at Riverside Studios, the show is ridiculously old-fashioned, the story is complete hokum and the songs are well crafted but slight. However, the cast of 20 accompanied only by the mighty James Church on piano hit the mark with such conviction and vitality (more important than almost anything according to the first act closer), that it would take a hard heart not to be won over. With knowing winks, mugging galore and more theatrical in-jokes than are heard at a Biggins birthday bash, this is niche entertainment for the musical theatre cognoscenti, or nerds to give them their proper title.
Finding ourselves laughing uproariously at every corny line and energetically applauding every beautifully sung number, with the multiple harmonies sounding gorgeous and effortless, this is heart-warming stuff. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but as an antidote to the likes of the cynical artless grave robbing cash cows of Viva Forever, Thriller and We Will Rock You, it is manna from heaven.
Sophie-Louise Dann is without any shadow of a doubt a star-in-waiting. Owning the stage with ease and charm, she seems to telepathically communicate with the audience that it's fine, we are all in on the joke so let’s just run with it and have fun. Her next job as Dot in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George opposite the mighty Julian Ovenden in Paris could well find me heading for the Eurostar.
Apparently the run is virtually sold out, but a couple of Wednesday matinees have been added, so if it’s talent, craft and a huge dollop of camp nostalgia you’re after, take a half day, grab a ticket and let yourself be transported to simpler times.
Booking until 2 March 2013, camp manna from heaven - Gay's The Word