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The Theatreguide.London Reviews


For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several Fringe comedies and musicals from 2003 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Airsick - Da Boyz - Call Me Merman - Kat and the Kings - Madness of George Dubya - Man Who Would Be Sting - Meat & Two Veg - Ladies and Gentlemen, Where Am I? - Once Upon a Mattress - Simplicity - Simply Heavenly - Singular Women - Too Marvelous for Words - Unsuspecting Susan - The Vegemite Tales

 

Airsick Bush Theatre, Autumn 2003

Emma Frost's black comedy, directed at the Bush by Mike Bradwell, touches on a number of themes, not all of them fully integrated. At various times our attention is drawn to the hard work of sustaining relationships, the impulse to avoid or even sabotage them because failure is easier, and the sense that much of life is out of our hands, the inevitable product of passing some point of no return sometime in the past.

Lucy (Celia Robertson) is beginning a live-in relationship with her American boyfriend Joe (Eric Loren), though Gabriel (Gideon Turner), who she bumped into at the airport, really seems a much more amiable guy. Complicating matters are her demanding and somewhat boorish father (Peter Jonfield) and her ditsy friend Scarlet (Susannah Doyle).

Blokeish Joe turns out to have more in common with father than daughter, and drifts away, and Gabriel shockingly proves less benign a comforter than he at first seemed. By the end, all the wrong people are happier than those who deserved happy endings, and at exactly what point things went sour remains as much a mystery as the black holes repeatedly invoked as symbols of inevitable doom.

Despite that dark summary, the play reaches repeatedly for a comic tone, primarily through punctuating scenes with extended bizarrely comic monologues, most often by the self-styled nymphomaniac Scarlet. These have the potential for being show-stoppingly funny, but only with a responsive audience.

If the audience is dead, as it was on the night I saw it, the poor actors don't have the stand-up comic's options of ad libbing or cutting the speeches short, but must soldier on, sinking ever deeper into painful silence. And with those failures deadening the mood, and without that leavening humour and the warmth it would bring to the characters, the body of the play remains distant from us, the story dragging or alienating us with its soap opera twists because it hasn't made contact with us.

It is to some degree unfair to judge a play on what might have been a bad night, but because I can only guess that it might work better with a more responsive audience, I can only very hesitantly suggest that it might be worth a visit

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Da Boyz Theatre Royal Stratford East, Spring 2003

Isn't it always like that? You wait your entire life for a rap version of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (the one about the two sets of twins constantly mistaken for each other), and then two come along in the same week. [Check the archive for our review of The Bomb-itty of Errors]. This fringe production has a lot of attractive youthful energy to it, but I fear it is significantly the weaker of the two.

The Theatre Royal has long had the mission of serving its East London community first and traditional theatregoers second. Fifty years ago that meant the left-wing, largely Jewish population reflected in the work of the legendary Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop. As the economics and ethnic makeup of the area have changed over the decades, so has the theatre's face, and now it is as much a community centre and educational outreach organisation as a producing theatre.

Da Boyz actually grew out of the work of its youth theatre program, and several members of the young Afro-Caribbean cast are making their professional debuts here. There's no question that this gives the show an immediacy and authenticity that go a long way towards outweighing its lack of polish. But even on its own terms, there are too many disappointments for it to be wholly successful.

Da Boyz is actually an adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse, the songs remixed into contemporary styles (with the blessing of the Richard Rodgers office) and the plot updated by DJ Excalibah, MC Skolla and ULTZ (as you'll see, many involved in the show use street names).

I am far from a purist, and would have been happy to hear exciting new versions of such standards as Falling In Love With Love and This Can't Be Love. But the updatings turn out to be rather tame - generally jazz arrangements of the sort that, say, Cleo Laine might sing, but over a heavy bass beat, and with rap interludes in the style of some contemporary pop records. On the other hand some of the songs, like Ladies Of The Evening, are deconstructed to the point of being barely recognisable, essentially original raps on vaguely similar subjects.

As the visiting twin, Kyza has some nice comic timing and the rubber face of a young Lenny Henry, while Kat and Darren Hart have fun with the slapstick of the twin servants. Lorna Brown and Vanya Taylor belt out the show's best songs with impressive energy.

Perhaps to accommodate the relative inexperience of the performers, director ULTZ has moved all the plot and dialogue scenes offstage, projecting video tapes onto large screens and leaving the stage exclusively for musical numbers. Choreography by Steady has the kids doing the kind of break dance moves street dancers were doing 20 years ago. And the whole thing is structured loosely enough that it can stop dead in the middle for a Guest Star turn by a locally popular rapper doing his own material.

To generate some of the excitement of a dance club, the seats in the stalls have been removed, allowing the younger members of the audience to stand and dance along if they like. That a boring old white man like me was unmoved by the show may be less significant than the fact that the teenagers and young people around me stood rather impassively through most of it.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Call Me Merman King's Head Theatre, Winter 2003-2004

There is a formula for shows like this salute to the legendary Broadway star Ethel Merman, an and-then-I-sang autobiography punctuated with music. Author John Kane and song-compiler and director David Kernan have come up with a mild variation in imagining Merman rehearsing for an and-then-I-sang nightclub act, mixing the act's script with rehearsal room chat to fill in the biographical material.

Angela Richards plays Merman, with Susannah Fellows and Mark White as her supporting singers, Michael Roberts as director and Fiz Shapur as accompanist.

I might begin by saying that if this were a real nightclub act I'd have felt cheated, since what we see being rehearsed is structured so that Merman herself would have done comparatively little, many of her most signature songs being given to the younger performers.

That wouldn't matter for the purposes of this show, except that Angela Richards is the only one on stage with any real sense of Ethel Merman. When she's allowed to, she does a fine job of capturing both Merman's brassy nasal sound and the real excitement of her belting.

A pause for those who don't remember. Think 'No Business Like Show Business'. Think 'I Got Rhythm', 'You're the Top', 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', and even if you never actually heard her, you'll hear her sound in your head.

Merman was one of the reigning stars of Broadway from the 1930s through the 1960s, and while she could undoubtedly sing quietly, once it was discovered that she could bounce her voice off the back wall without straining, that was the only kind of song that Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Irving Berlin ever wrote for her.

(And, to be fair, the particular kind of breathing and projection that Merman epitomised - the belting of a song - became sadly obsolete with the introduction and ubiquity of body microphones, so that contemporary singers don't have to learn how to do it. Indeed, were the young Merman to appear today, she'd have to be taught to tone it all down and let the sound engineer do all the work.)

So, while it is a delight to hear Angela Richards belt out 'A Lady With a Song', 'The Hostess With the Mostest' and 'Coming Up Roses' - and not the least of the evening's pleasures is that in the small King's Head there's no need for amplification and we can listen to real human voices -   it is just frustrating that it is the others who sing 'You Can't Get a Man With a Gun' and 'Some People' and that what should be Merman's solos, like 'I Got Rhythm' and 'Anything Goes', are too often turned into duets or trios.

As pleasant to listen to as the others are - and it may even be that Fellows and White are too good as singers to be able to submerge their melodic quality into Merman's brassiness - too much of the show is made up of simply generic renditions of some classic Broadway songs.

And I'm afraid that's not what we came for. The Merman fan looking to recapture memories of the original will find just too little in this show that lets that happen.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Kat and the Kings Tricycle Theatre, Winter 2003-2004

This musical from South Africa had its British premiere at the Tricycle in 1997, then transferred to the West End, where it won the 1999 Olivier, and has toured Europe before this return visit.

Set in the late 1950s, it tells of some young coloured (i.e., mixed-race and thus subject to all the apartheid laws) guys who rise from streetcorner singers to local celebrities as a rhythm-and-blues group, only to have their careers cut short by the ceiling of prejudice.

If the story is somewhat predictable (though no less sad and shocking for that), the evening is carried along on the high energy of more than thirty original songs by the show's creators, David Kramer and Taliep Peterson, that are first-rate pastiches of 1950s-style blues, ballads, calypso and hard-driving rock'n'roll with no-doubt conscious echoes of  Leiber and Stoller.

I didn't see the original, but I'm told that the script has been revised a bit, and one song added, to strengthen the anti-apartheid message. I suspect that was a mistake, or at least unnecessary, since the evils of prejudice are obvious enough not to need underlining, and some of the strongest critical points the show makes are more subtle.

The fact that the show is narrated by one of the boys more than thirty years later, and that he is now just a shoeshine man, says more about the lingering effects of racism than any overt preaching. And when the white owner of a hotel where the group is hired assumes that they'll double as bellboys during the day, the guys (and the show's creators) score by turning their bellboy uniforms into costumes and incorporating the intended insult into their act.

Meanwhile, it is notable that the songs of complaint or anger about apartheid are the weakest, both musically and dramatically. But co-author David Kramer has wisely directed the show with an emphasis on the positive, and you could enjoy it, if you were so inclined, just on the level of the infectious songs and dances.

The show warms up slowly as it lures us into its world, but things really cut loose in the second half, as we see the group's cabaret act - there's a black light dance number that is one of the cleverest and funniest I've ever seen -  and later in an extended string of encores that has the audience on its feet.

Danny Butler plays the narrating older Kat, providing a tone of distanced bemusement that balances out the script's angrier moments, and incidentally demonstrating some smooth dance moves that belie his years. Emraan Adams as the young Kat and Abigail Petersen as the girl who helps shape the boys into a polished act lead the younger cast.

Come for the only-occasionally heavy-handed social message or just for the rock'n'roll. In either case, you'll have a great time.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Madness Of George Dubya Arts Theatre Spring 2003

This is an opportunity squandered, what should have been sure-fire satire gone almost totally limp through lack of imagination and barely competent direction and performances.

Justin Butcher's comic take on the American-Iraqi war starts promisingly enough. If you are willing to grant the standard satiric premise that George W. Bush is an idiot with a mental age of about six, then the opening scene introduces some enjoyable twists to the formula as George Dubya, played amiably by Thomas Arnold, is prone to malapropisms, confusing terrorists with tourists, bothered by Iraquistan or Pakarabistan's weapons of mass distraction, and dedicated to a war on poverty, tyranny, injustice and France. Meanwhile, his advisors all think they're in Reservoir Dogs, and keep arguing over their code names when not pulling guns on each other.

But that, which takes up perhaps the first five minutes of the show, is the extent of its imagination and comic originality. George Dubya tells us of a dream he had, and his dream is the plot of Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove. I mean that literally - a mad American general obsessed with the purity and essence of our precious bodily fluids turns loose some nuclear bombers, and we cut back and forth between his office, as his British subordinate tries to get the recall code; a bomber cockpit; and the war room.

Well, you know the film. (If you don't, go rent it. It's great.) Butcher's only significant alteration from his source is replacing Peter Sellers' American President in the war room with British PM Tony Blear. (The names, by the way, are an indicator of the show's wit. The film's General Jack D. Ripper is now Kipper, Group Captain Mandrake is now Windbreak, and the like.)

Nicholas Burns actually does a pretty good Blair parody, and supplies some of the very few laughs in the body of the show that don't come from direct quotations from the film script or from Tom Lehrer songs inserted at random moments. All the other performers are, without exception, terrible - lifeless and unfunny when acting (especially with the shadows of Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Heydon looking over their shoulders), simply clumsy when trying to sing and dance. Butcher, serving as his own director, seems to have no sense of the amount of space available to him on the stage, or how to move his people around it.

Close to the end, the play stops dead for a long and impassioned speech by Rupert Mason as the Iraqi ambassador, detailing the history of the West's hypocrisy and interference in his country over the past century. It's a strong inditement and could be a powerful moment in a different context. But it's just in the wrong play, as is Mason's over-the-top performance, and it lies there like an undigested lump that the would-be satire has to move around to pick up where it left off.

The whole show has the air of self-congratulatory undergraduate cleverness about it, the sort of thing that would sound absolutely hilarious after a long night of drinking and political pontificating. And a 15-minute version might even be a fun interlude at anti-war rallies. But length, lifelessness and lack of comic imagination doom this to a dreary two hours that even the most ardent anti-Americanists will have a hard time enjoying.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Man Who Would Be Sting BAC, Winter 2003-2004

The semi-fictitious autobiography is a recognised genre of solo performances, with the author-actor usually looking at his or her past with a combination of bemused distance and awareness of the real drama to be found in the material.

Niall Ashdown's new one-man show fits nicely into the pattern, as he presents a fictionalised version of himself as an archetype while at the same time using the specifics drawn from his past to give reality and sympathy to the portrait.

The picture he draws for us is of an adolescent failure growing into ineffectual adulthood, all to the soundtrack of the rock star he idolises. But the strength of the piece comes not just from the story's familiarity, or the actor's amiable charm. Gradually and subtly, Ashdown allows us to see a pattern to his tale, and the discovery  of a life defined by dreams unfulfilled because unattempted.

The boy (and man) whose unconscious mantra was that everything would be great if only he were Sting, Ashdown quietly lets us realise, was also implicitly thinking that since he wasn't Sting, there was really no point in reaching for anything.

That sad final note is balanced by the equally unstated awareness that the healthy and creative man before us is clearly not identical to the version of himself he is playing, and by the ample supply of humour along the way, whether it is Ashdown's singing, lip-syncing and air-guitaring to several Police songs; his witty portrayals of both his adolescent self and various adults; or his happy digressions into telling comments on the nature of theatre, mock outrage at insincere Desert Island Discs guests,  and a check of the TV listings to see what we might have been doing if we had stayed home.

I half-suspect that Sting is only in the play to allow for the title and that, whoever the real Ashdown's teen idol was, pretty much the same show could have been written around the image and songbook of Jagger, Stewart or any of a dozen others.

What matters are the extra dimensions Ashdown brings to the familiar genre, both of humour and of insight.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Meat & Two Veg / Ladies & Gentlemen, Where Am I? Battersea Arts Centre Spring 2003

Cartoon de Salvo is a trio of writer-performers who honed their skills in street theatre, an arena that demands constant inventiveness and instant audience rapport. They have since brought their work indoors, with their current repertory alternating one of their biggest successes with a new work.

Meat & Two Veg is a 1950s-era deconstruction of Twelfth Night, a warm and inventive comedy that raises the techniques and spirit of street theatre to new heights and pokes benignly satiric fun at both the innocence of mid-century middle England and the absurdities of Shakespearean romance.

When young Violet, played by David Bernstein, dresses in her absent brother's clothes, she is accepted as a playmate by Brian Logan's neighbour boy, who sends her with a love note to Alex Murdoch's Olive, and the evocation of an England just about to enter the rock'n'roll era is so delightful that we are halfway into the plot before we realise it's been cribbed from Shakespeare.

The company's street theatre roots are evident in the quick changes, instant characterisations, ingenious use of Becky Hurst's simple set, and amiable communion with the audience. Witty episodes employing shadow puppets, Potteresque use of pop music to express the characters' emotions, and touches of the totally absurd, like a Sicilian skittle trio, keep the level of invention and engagement high.

At only a few moments do the Shakespearean plot and 1950s pastiche seem to be fighting for the play's focus rather than supporting each other, and the whole might benefit from a bit more energy and pacing. But how can one cavil with a company who stop the performance in mid-plot to call a tea break, and then share their tea and biscuits with us?

Their new piece, Ladies & Gentlemen, Where Am I?, employs many of the same techniques, though with somewhat less effect. If, as it seems,  it is a work in progress, its success lies several rewrites and rethinks ahead.

The seriocomic tale of Victorian prizefighting takes as its base the oft-told story of a poor boy doing well as a boxer but then forced to throw fights until he is torn between the calls of money and honour. It is a familiar plot, and could be treated seriously or comically. But the company don't seem sure whether they want to play it as straight melodrama, camped-up melodrama, light comedy, satire or farce.

Script and performances change modes so frequently and suddenly that the audience can't keep up. As a result,  both jokes and moments of potential emotional effect too often go by without registering, and the charm and warm audience rapport of which the company is capable can't be sustained. There is ample talent in evidence here, but insufficient development of the piece or polish and pacing in its frequently tentative performances.

Clearly Cartoon de Salvo is a company to take notice of, but only one of their two current shows presents them at their best.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Once Upon A Mattress Landor Theatre Spring 2003

This South London pub theatre has a history of taking on Broadway musicals you would expect to be too big and ambitious for them, and pulling them off. And now, with the first London revival of this 1959 hit, they've done it again. There is more life, more spirit, more fun to be had in this pocket theatre than in most of the moribund megamusicals that have passed through the West End in recent years.

Once Upon A Mattress is an old-fashioned Broadway musical, from the days when all (All!) you needed were some good songs, a witty book and roles tailored to show off the performers at their best. None of its creators - music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller - became major names, though all had full careers, but they came together at just the right time to produce a real charmer.

The score is the kind of solid pop music that even second-string Broadway writers used to turn out as a matter of course, and although I hadn't seen the show in over 40 years, I could have sung every one of the songs going in. Rodgers (daughter of the more famous Richard) has some really lovely melodies for In A Little While, Normandy, and Yesterday I Loved You, while Barer's lyrics anticipate Sondheim in their cleverness - "Alack, a lass is what we lack/We lack a lass, alas alack" and "My time is at a premium/For soon the world will see me a/Maternal bride-to-be."

The plot, a take-off on the story of the princess and the pea, is built on the central joke that the heroine is no fairy tale princess, but a brassy, unfeminine goofball who is exactly what the sleepy little fairy tale kingdom needs to shake it up. It was originally a vehicle for the young Carol Burnett, who played Winnifred the Woebegone as gawky country mouse, arms and legs shooting off in various directions, horseface emitting the oddest-sounding and yet somehow melodic bleats.

In this delightful revival diminutive Donna Steele comes at the role from another angle, and is just as successful. Her Winnifred is an escapee from New Jersey or one of New York's outer boroughs, a working-class ethnic several social classes out of her league - think Fran Drescher or any of the women from The Sopranos - but with more healthy energy than anyone else around. When she lets loose with the Princess's brassy anthem, I've Always Been Shy, you can sense the dust and cobwebs being shaken loose from the rafters.

She gets strong support from Alistair Munro and Justine Balmer as the secondary romantic couple, William Maidwell as the mama's boy prince, Dian Perry as his wicked-witch-like mother, and a uniformly attractive and talented cast, several of whom double on musical instruments when not (and sometimes while) acting, singing and dancing. Director Robert McWhir and musical stager Christopher Stewart keep the whole thing flowing smoothly without ever taking the show or themselves too seriously.

Yes, the sets and costumes have the amiable tattiness reminiscent of school productions, and occasionally the acting or singing are a bit too big for the small space. But the not-very-long Underground ride to this not-too-familiar part of Lambeth is well worth it for an evening that will send you out in a humming and happy mood.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Simplicity Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Autumn 2003

Hands up, all those who have seen a play by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

I wouldn't have been able to respond to that call, so the opportunity to see a romantic comedy by the 18th century traveller, author, medical pioneer, foe of Pope and Walpole, heroine to later feminists, was worth the short trip to suburban Richmond, where the always surprising Orange Tree offers the first production in 300 years (or perhaps ever) of her delightful romantic comedy.

Actually an adaptation of an earlier French play, Simplicity sets up a foolproof comic situation. About to be visited by a suitor she has never met, a wily heiress decides to change places with her maid, in order to observe him unobserved. But the visitor has made the same switch with his valet.

What follows is as enjoyable as it is inevitable - or, rather, enjoyable because of its inevitability, as we sit back and watch the predetermined dance. The pair destined for each other are immediately attracted, and must overcome their class prejudice to face marrying beneath them. And the two servants, each thinking they're about to make a major move upwards, also fall in love.

Auriol Smith directs with perhaps a bit too much restraint, as the play is full of asides and doubletakes that would be a lot more fun if punched up a bit more. Still, Octavia Walters is delightful as the girl whose stratagem threatens to turn against her, Gyuri Sarossy appropriately stalwart as the hero who proves his mettle by following his heart.

Rebekah Staton and Tom McKay create a nicely earthy balance as the servants whose romance has one eye on the main chance, and Terence Hardiman as the girl's benevolent father and Perri Snowdon as her amused brother provide strong support.

The piece is slight, but it is at least as much fun as most other comedies of the period, and another successful rediscovery for the Orange Tree.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Simply Heavenly Young Vic Theatre Spring 2003; Trafalgar Studios Autumn-Winter 2004 (Reviewed at the Young Vic)

Langston Hughes' 1957 musical is a warm and happy delight, exactly what you hope for (and too rarely get) when a theatre revives a 'lost masterpiece.' It's small in scale compared to today's elephantine megamusicals, but there's a lovely and sparkling gem there that it would be a shame for anyone to miss.

The leading African-American poet and essayist of the first half of the twentieth century, Hughes had written several volumes of Harlem-based character sketches and short stories built around the downtrodden but ever-optimistic Jesse B. Semple. Semple is the musical's hero, with a deliberately basic boy-loves-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot at its core.

But the show's real heart is in the world Semple inhabits and the background characters among whom he lives, here the regulars at a friendly Harlem bar. A big mama figure presides over the community with open heart and infectious joy. A rotund watermelon seller pursues her with unwavering amorousness. A married couple bicker lovingly. A good-time girl just tries to enjoy life. A poor writer takes notes for the novel he may never write, and a poor musician bemoans the lack of opportunity.

All this is set to music by David Martin that draws on black American forms from gospel to blues, charleston to jazz, and the show's high points come when the talented cast let loose musically. And here the undoubted stars are not so much the amiable Rhashan Stone as Semple or the sweetly lovely Cat Simmons as his girl, but Ruby Turner's Miss Mamie and Clive Rowe's Melon.

From Turner's heartbreaking Did You Ever Hear the Blues to Turner and Rowe's bouncy Here You Come, from Stone's gospel-tinged John Henry to the stomping dance number Ball, the joint only stops rocking long enough to reestablish the loving warmth of the plot and milieu.

Director Josette Bushell-Mingo and choreographer Paul J. Medford establish and sustain the spirit of celebration of a rich and warm culture, though one must admit they don't fully conquer a couple of problems caused by the passage of time. The show is leisurely in warming up, by our more frenetic standards, and you have to adjust your internal clock to let the story, characters and music draw you in at their own pace. And early in the show a minor character accuses the others of acting like Negro stereotypes, which may make you overly aware that, by contemporary standards, some of the characterisations are uncomfortably close to parody.

But push past those minor quibbles to enjoy a show and a production that so generously and openly invite you to enjoy them, and you'll be happy you joined the party.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Singular Women King's Head Theatre, Autumn 2003

Stewart Permutt's program of four 20-minute monologues was first seen a dozen years ago with four different actresses, but now Lesley Joseph, one of the original quartet, has commandeered the entire text for herself.

The result is never really much more than a light diversion, though there are repeated hints of striving for more, but it is totally successful on that level and as a showpiece for the attractive star.

Best known to British audiences as the man-hungry neighbour in the long-running TV sitcom Birds of a Feather, Joseph uses all her comic skills to draw every possible laugh from the four vignettes. Indeed, so much do the laughs depend on her timing, doubletakes and baleful looks that you may only later realise that there wasn't actually anything funny in the line that had you laughing so much.

Each of the four monologues mixes the bizarrely comic with a hint of pathos. The mistress of a great man prepares for a TV appearance plugging her book about him. A widow running a chocolate shop expresses her pride in her small domain. A spinster schoolteacher's eccentricity moves a little closer to real madness. And a sometime panto actress reveals unexpected perils and violence behind the scenes.

The last two are a little more successful than the others in balancing the comedy with more subdued and darker emotional colours. But, perhaps unfairly, any writing of this sort will always be compared to Alan Bennett's matchless Talking Heads, and the brevity of Permutt's pieces does not allow for the subtle and gradual exposure of unhappiness that is Bennett's trademark.

So, while each of the monologues runs the risk ultimately of disappointing, just because it hints at more than it delivers, they are best enjoyed on the simple comic level, where both the writing and Lesley Joseph's performance shine.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Too Marvelous for Words King's Head Theatre, January 2003

This salute to Hollywood/Broadway/Tin Pan Alley lyricist Johnny Mercer is one more in what has become a recognisable fringe genre, with its own well-established conventions. An attractive young quartet (2m, 2f) mix and match to sing his songs and take turns providing the links, usually a rough biography of the 'and then he wrote' sort.

Writer-director Alvin Rakoff has gotten a little more ambitious with this variant, creating an actual play following Mercer's life though its high and low points. But the device is not successful, too obviously falsifying in the attempt to create drama and in awkwardly shoe-horning songs (taken out of their order or context of composition) into supposed biographical relevance. The result, unfortunately,  is both poor drama and an unsatisfying presentation of the songs.

Born into an affluent Georgia family in 1909 (His father later lost his money, and Mercer devoted much of his early career to paying off his debts), Mercer had the usual early struggles but quickly became one of American pop music's best lyricists, collaborating with a number of composers, most successfully with Harold Arlen on such to-become-standards as One For My Baby, Accentuate the Positive and Blues In The Night.

Like many lyricists, his contributions frequently got lost to a cultural memory that associates the songs with their composers (Quick - who wrote Moon River? It turns out that he did, at least the words, though I'll bet you answered Henry Mancini.) And many of his songs, like Moon River, were written to assignment and could really only be given autobiographical interpretations, if at all, in terms of their general themes, the way one senses a but-not-for-me motif running through Larry Hart's love songs.

So trying to make them autobiographical does the songs an injustice while not contributing much to the shallow and cliche-ridden biographical script. You are likely to come out of this show with a wrong idea of who Mercer was and not much in the way of an increased appreciation of his talent - very much the opposite of what this sort of show hopes to accomplish

The cast are attractive but limited or misdirected. Sally Hughes acts too hard for the slender dramatic and lyrical material she is given, Daniel Gillingwater handles his tasks as Designated Comedian well but is weak of voice, Alexandra Jay sparkles unrelentingly, and Andrew Halliday as Mercer tries to hold the thing together but swallows his words ('...one faw m'baby an one maw faw the ro'), surely an unfortunate quality in a salute to a lyricist.

I am being a bit harsh. Most of the songs are good, though there are too many second-rate ones shoved in just because they supposedly fit the biographical script, and if you come in demanding very little more than the opportunity to hum along to some old standards, you may have a pleasant couple of hours.  But you can do that at home with your record collection.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Unsuspecting Susan King's Head Theatre Spring-Summer 2003

Rather than rest on the laurels of similar roles she has played in the past, Celia Imrie takes this portrait of a well-heeled divorcee of a certain age who is stripped of her values to unexpected emotional depths. The result is a performance that makes you think, laugh and cry -- encapsulating everything a solo show should be about.

In this slick production, Susan's posh Hampshire world is comfortably twee, informed equally by Beatrix Potter, "Homes & Gardens" and the Moseleys. From her English-rose village, far-off London, where her only son lives with his "friend" Jamal, holds the Chekhovian push-pull of the Big City for country dwellers.

Writer Stewart Permutt supplies delicious turns of phrase that verge on satirical and you know there is a darker side waiting. As Susan describes her life to date it becomes clear that, though intelligent, she has no clue about the reality of her changing world: the am-dram politics, the new social worker neighbour, the ex-husband who was never quite suitable, the son whose problems lead him to reject far more than the stifling village where his mother nurtured him.

Permutt's light touch soon turns to a broad swash that is effective yet descends at a crucial point into factual inaccuracies leached through muddled "Daily Mail" politics that owe more to Mapp and Lucia than David Hare's mawkish Via Dolorosa.

Though the writing slips up, Imrie's performance does not, and she touches many a nerve with her easy-going stiff upper-lip that belies a bad case of the ostrich tendency, hoping everything will go away if she ignores it. Equally, much credit must go to Lisa Forrell's direction, which plays to the strengths of both performer and writer and makes it all look effortless.

Nick Awde

 

The Vegemite Tales Old Red Lion Theatre, Spring 2003 and revivals

Imagine a TV sitcom modelled on Friends, with the gimmick that all the flatmates and neighbours are Australian 20-somethings living in London, and you'll have some of the flavour of Melanie Tait's audience-pleasing but ultimately trivial comedy.

In strict TV mode the characters are an unlikely mix of recognizable types - the stud, the shnook, the perky tomboy, the motherly one, etc - along with (for no reason except that Tait once knew such a person) an Italian fascinated by obscenities in different languages. In strict TV mode little actually happens, with token gestures toward plot - an unwanted pregnancy, a tentative romance, a decision to go home - merely providing the slimmest of skeletons on which individual scenes or jokes about job-hunting, flatmate discord, partying and culture clashes are hung.

And in strict TV mode the author has directed her cast to play broadly and signifyingly, punching up every gag and making no attempt to flesh out their characters beyond cliche. And much as in a sitcom, several of the characters are underwritten and underused, although you can imagine them playing more central roles in another episode.

Andrew Robb anchors the play as the most mature and level-headed of the group, while Craig Rasmus and Priscilla Jackman provide both humour and sweetness as the platonic buddies tentatively moving toward romance, and Dimity Harris does a scene-stealing turn as the Sloanie one of the guys meets at a dance club.

Having said all this,  I suspect that Tait would not be particularly upset by my criticism,* since her play has no ambitions to rise above the sitcom level, and might indeed be pleased to have achieved it. By the undemanding standards of the genre, the play is not bad at all. Certainly an almost entirely young and largely Aussie audience finds a lot to recognize and enjoy in the flatmates' adventures, while the device of punctuating scenes with to-the-camera monologues in which each in turn list their most and least favourite things about London repeatedly strikes comic paydirt.

It's all a little too shapeless, even by its own modest standards, but a harmless couple of hours that provides its intended audience with a moderate quota of laughs.

Gerald Berkowitz

* I was wrong. When this review first appeared Tait asked that we withdraw it as it was not positive enough for her.

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