The Union certainly has a knack of unearthing previously unheard of gems. Here they present the European premiere of a short-running 1968 Broadway production that originally starred Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge, who nabbed herself a Tony for her troubles. With music by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), lyrics by E Y “Yip” Harburg (Wizard of Oz, Finian’s Rainbow) and book by screenwriter extraordinaire Nunnally Johnson based on a novel by Arnold Bennett, the writing pedigree alone is worth getting out of the house on the coldest Spring weekend since the Ice Age.
Set at the beginning of the last century, successful but publicity shy artist Priam Farll returns from years of overseas travel with his loyal valet Henry Leek, who suddenly and unexpectedly pops his clogs. A mistake by the attending doctor finds Farll being pronounced dead instead of Leek and the real Farll seizes the opportunity to seek a simpler life away from the machinations of the art scene by taking on Leek’s identity.
He quickly falls for the homely charms of Leek’s matrimonial agency sourced bride-to-be, Putney widow Alice Challice, and they marry, hoping to live happily ever after surrounded by Alice’s salt of the earth cockney compatriots. Unfortunately Farll is undone by his inability to stop creating great art and the ever increasing greed of his dealer Clive Oxford and patron Lady Vale. A satisfyingly surreal courtroom scene resolves nothing and everything, leaving all but Leek’s genuine wife and son delighted with the outcome.
A heart-warming story with well crafted songs doffing their cap to My Fair Lady (Not On Your Nellie is a close bedfellow of With A Little Bit Of Luck), there is no wonder this didn’t exactly set the Great White Way on fire, but presented as a chamber piece, with exuberant cast and a tremendous four piece band, it would take a strong man not to be won over.
James Dinsmore and Katy Secombe as Farll and Challice are charm itself, his upper middle class stuffiness melting away in the face of her uncomplicated working class aspirations. She is the best friend everyone wishes they had and he adores her, none of us want their dreams to shatter.
Director Paul Foster and choreographer Matt Flint make the most of the exceptional supporting cast, filling the Union’s tiny space with joyous ensemble knees-ups and raucous singalongs. The seratonin flows uninhibited and unaided through my veins and a smile is never far from my lips.
I have to mention poor old Rebecca Caine as Lady Vale. In something of a coup, the original Cosette has been persuaded to leave her beloved Shepherd’s Bush for the dim lights of Southwark only to be felled by the dreaded lurgy (I myself am bashing away with a sweaty sock around my neck dreaming of the relief a fisherman’s friend can bring). Unable to sing, she battles on regardless, her two solos sung off-stage by Olivia Maffett. What a trouper.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of Rosy Lee and may be a little twee for those who find themselves battle hardened by 21st century struggles, but if you just let go and allow yourself to be swept away by the gentle charms of simpler times, you might just have as much fun as I did.
Booking until 20 April 2013, the perfect antidote to Wednesday night - Darling of The Day