The Theatreguide.London Review
It is axiomatic that musicals have second act troubles, but here is an exception - a musical whose second act is a delight, but whose first act is poor.
A bit of background - 20 years ago comedienne Victoria Wood wrote and fronted a TV sketch show one of whose running gags was a mock soap opera set in an antique shop. Now she has reassembled much of the original cast for a full-length stage musical based on those sketches. (Americans: think of some of the movies, like Wayne's World, based on Saturday Night Live sketches.)
The stage version is actually two separate scripts back-to-back. In Act One, the fictional actors who appeared in the soap are assembled for a planned musical, which is deliberately terrible. Then one wins the lottery and can produce the musical they'd really like to do, and that new version makes up Act Two.
(Follow that? My totally uninformed guess is that Victoria Wood wrote Act Two first and found herself with a nice eighty-minute musical. While others in this cynical age would have no qualms about presenting that as a full evening's entertainment, she felt the need to flesh it out, and so wrote Act One as a prelude. Or maybe not.)
Anyway, Act One is a fairly uninspired collection of predictable backstage gags - the out-of-work actors who try to behave like stars, the pretentiously arty director seeing the script as a nihilistic condemnation of contemporary values, and the usual gaggle of rehearsal gaffes, from missed cues to recalcitrant props to a singer with a sinus infection.
The main pleasure for the audience comes in seeing the familiar faces from twenty years ago in neat twists on their old roles. The helpful and avuncular neighbour of the soap, played then and now by Duncan Preston, turns out to be an aging biker backstage, while Julie Walters' doddering old charwoman from the soap is a self-absorbed diva.
And then there are the bits of the ultimately rejected musical we see in rehearsal, combining the director's dark vision with the cast's determination to smile and tapdance.
Act Two essentially starts all over, completely within the world of the soap opera, with Celia Imrie and Sally Ann Triplett playing the sister-owners of the antique shop, watched over by Duncan Preston's friend and Julie Walters' addled tea lady. There's a plot of sorts, involving amnesia, evil property developers, a missing will and a long-lost sister, but the main fun lies in the recreation of the mock soap world and the much loved characters.
(Obviously it is an advantage to have known and loved the TV version of twenty years ago but, writing as one without that background, I can report that you very quickly catch on to the in-jokes and don't really miss much.)
The songs, all by Victoria Wood, are good enough to meet the show's needs without theatening to have any life outside it.. Wood always includes a stint at the piano in her stand-up act, and much of the score has the same Tom Lehrer-Fascinating Aida flavour, most notably Julie Walters' show-stopping number asserting the superiority of tea and biscuits over sex.
(Incidentally, I hadn't realised how much of a gay icon Julie Walters has become. Every entrance, every gesture is greeted with whoops and screams of joy the likes of which I haven't heard since the last time Madonna tried to be an actress. She's funny, but she isn't THAT funny.)
With a cast who are more actors than singers, the songs are mainly just walked through, though Sally Ann Triplett, the only real singer in the bunch, gets a lovely ballad. I did hear, among the fairly generic melodies, a couple of direct steals from Sondheim and Willy Russell, but they may have been part of the joke, since the script is full of references to other musicals.
(Was it also a deliberate joke, or just a mistake, to build a gag and then a whole production number on the belief that Bob Fosse choreographed A Chorus Line?)
The cast seem to enjoy themselves. Julie Walters happily milks every last giggle out of the charlady's dim bumbling, Josie Lawrence does the brassy broad bit for all its worth, while Neil Morrissey contrasts the tortured director of Act One with the oily seducer of Act Two. Celia Imrie, a notably slender actress, seems a bit taken aback at playing a character repeatedly described as curvaceous and big-bosomed, but again that may be part of the joke.
Trevor Nunn directs with his left hand, keeping things moving but not adding very much in the way of invention, and Stephen Mear's choreography just barely keeps the dancers from bumping into the furniture.
But of course a glossier production would miss the point. The basic joke of the original TV sketches was the tackiness of the low-budget soap, and that - the double-edged laughter both at and with the characters - is delightfully captured in the musical.
This isn't My Fair Lady, but sit patiently through the promising-but-never-quite-delivering Act One, and you'll find that it's just the appetiser for the thoroughly enjoyable Act Two.
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