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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Spitfire Grill
Union Theatre   Summer 2015

From the heartland of America (a small regional theatre in Wisconsin) by way of an Off-Broadway production fifteen years ago comes this modest and charming little musical, given an appropriately and satisfyingly simple production that makes for a very pleasant summer night's entertainment. 

The book by James Valcq (also music) and Fred Alley (also lyrics) is based on a 1996 independent film about a released prisoner who more or less at random picks an obscure small town in which to rebuild her life, only to discover that the town is dying and its remaining residents dispirited. 

The film had a dark and melodramatic quality, but the adaptors have lightened it considerably by focusing on the way the newcomer's energy reinvigorates the town and its people while it and they help in mending her damaged soul. 

The device for achieving both is a plan to help the tired owner of the titular town diner get rid of it by offering it as a prize to the person making the best case for deserving it. 

As letters pour in from all over the country expressing people's hunger for the small town life and values, the townspeople rediscover their own home and their way of life. Along the way some dark secrets are uncovered, but the newly revived warmth and sense of community can absorb and forgive all. 

It's a lovely fable, and even if you can guess or predict most of the plot turns long in advance, the inherent charm of the piece and the sensitive performances of the talented cast carry you along with it. 

James Valcq's music may be rarely more than serviceable, and occasionally remind you too closely of predecessors as diverse as Johnny Cash and Les Mis. But Fred Alley's lyrics are remarkable in their ability to absorb and communicate vast swaths of plot or characterisation without bogging down. 

All the songs are 'book songs' tied so specifically to the character and moment in the story that they could have no life outside the show. This is not necessarily a criticism, except perhaps from a commercial perspective, and is actually one of the musical's strengths, as songs and spoken scenes become so fully integrated. 

Director Alastair Knights wisely keeps everything simple and direct, utilising no more of a set than a couple of tables and chairs, and guiding his performers to quietly underplayed acting and the full realisation of the songs' dramatic power. 

Belinda Wollaston attractively conveys the heroine's irresistible life force while also capturing the process of her own demons being conquered. and Hilary Harwood is strong as the crusty but heart-of-gold diner owner.

There is solid support from Chris Kiely as the town sheriff you spot as the love interest hours before he figures it out, Natalie Law as an all-but-battered housewife who rediscovers her strength, Hans Rye as the embodiment of the townsfolk's lost sense of purpose and manhood, and Katie Brennan as the comic village gossip.

Its fable-like quality makes The Spitfire Grill a delicate and fragile piece, and a larger or less sensitive production could have swamped it. It is not a major work of art, but one of considerable charm, and this staging is perfectly pitched to present it at its best.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Spitfire Grill - Union Theatre 2015

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