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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Baker's Wife
Union Theatre Autumn 2011

There's usually a reason why shows fail. This collaboration of Joseph Stein (book) and Stephen Schwartz (songs) died in its pre-Broadway tour in 1976 and a revamped London production in 1989 lasted less than two months, and it's not hard to see why.

Its plot is less than paper-thin (The baker stops working when his young wife runs off with a local stud, and the villagers get her back so they can get back their croissants), and the songs, though initially seeming to promise some Sondheimish wit ('What is as luscious as a brioche is?'), are generally the sort you forget even as you're hearing them. 

Still, it could have some charm if it were given a stronger production than this uncharacteristically misjudged Union Theatre revival. 

The biggest problem lies in director Michael Strassen's failure to decide or convey to his cast just what we are meant to feel about each of the characters. The result is a kind of chain reaction. 

Matthew Goodgame as the seducer doesn't seem sure whether he's Romeo or Iago, a sincere lover or hypocritical manipulator. Because we don't know how to take him, we don't know whether to feel happy, sorry or contemptuous toward Lisa Stokke's straying wife or, in turn, whether the cuckolded baker (Michael Matus) is sympathetic, pathetic or ridiculous.

As my companion asked on our way out of the theatre, 'Who were we supposed to like?' 

A production that doesn't guide you toward the basic understanding of who the good guys and bad guys are is not helping its script along much. And in this case the failure leads to even further problems.

If the baker is meant to be really suffering from his wife's departure, then the villagers' songs calling him 'The World's Luckiest Man' and offering him the town roué's spare mistresses for 'Feminine Companionship' are going to leave a very sour taste.

If those songs are meant to be lightly comic, as they are played here, then they are telling us not to waste much sympathy on the baker. The director - and the audience – can't have it both ways. 

Meanwhile there are too many little slips that betray a director who isn't paying sufficient attention. Everyone refers to the village priest as 'cure' to rhyme with pure, rather than curé, and everyone pronounces the baker's name (Aimable) differently. 

Matthew Goodgame is handsome enough as the stud but doesn't seem to know who his character is. Lisa Stokke isn't a strong enough singing actress to establish and sustain sympathy for the straying wife. 

She has a big self-explaining soliloquy in 'Meadowlark', arguably the best song in the show, but aside from real difficulty in making herself audible over a single quiet piano, she just can't carry the song's dramatic weight. 

Michael Matus retains some dignity as the baker, mainly by choosing to give the character some dignity however much it clashes with everything else that's going on. 

But the real star of the evening is Ricky Butt as the café hostess and occasional narrator figure. She sings well, acts with unforced charm, and provides us with the one character whose simple honour and good will we are never in doubt about, and therefore the one we latch gratefully onto as someone to like.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Baker's Wife - Union Theatre 2011

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