Bush Hall Summer 2016
The famous comment about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire could do but backwards and in high heels is evoked in Melissa Bubnic's drama-with-songs about the strains of being a woman in a man's world.
And if neither play nor production are quite as original as they think they are, the sheer energy of the performances carries the evening.
Astrid is a commodities trader, very much aware of being a lone woman in a boys' world, and of all the games she must master and how much better she must be than everyone else to survive.
She spots some promise in newcomer Priya and decides to mentor her, while her own pressures drive her to trying to buy friendship and even love from prostitute Isabelle.
The more astute of you will already be footnoting the script to Bubnic's sources and influences, which become obvious even to the rest of us as the play progresses.
Anyone who doesn't spot All About Eve looming in the first Astrid-Priya scene and know for sure that the student will eventually betray and displace her patron is asleep.
Pretty Woman is openly mentioned (and denied, but the lady doth protest too much) in the business arrangement between Astrid and Isabelle. And when the double-crossing and back-stabbing really get going, the shadow of David Mamet hangs over both action and dialogue.
Even the plot turns and character revelations that you can't predict long in advance don't really come as surprises, as the playwright gives herself a very limited range of ingredients from which to select.
Meanwhile, the gimmick on which the production is being marketed – that all the roles, including male ones, are played by women – proves to add less in the way of ironic commentary than was evidently hoped for.
More successful as a device is punctuating the dramatic action with musical interludes, generally pop songs and classic blues from the 1930s through the 1950s, to comment sympathetically or ironically on what's happening. (Of course this too is borrowed, from Cabaret)
There are solid performances by Ellora Torchia as Priya and Chipo Chung as Isabelle, along with Emily Barker and Helen Schlesinger as some of the boys, and musical support from Jennifer Whyte at the piano.
But ultimately the strongest reasons for seeing this show are the unflagging energy of Amy Hodges' direction and the power and magnetism of Kirsty Bushell's performance as Astrid.
Bushell captures all the steely determination and edge-of-collapse nervous energy of the character, and is also a fascinating and mesmerising singer, holding the stage with a smoky bluesy voice and a jazz diva's authority.
If she ever gets bored with acting, she has a second career waiting as a cabaret singer.
(While the Bush Theatre is being renovated, its shows for the rest of 2016 will find temporary homes in the neighbourhood. This co-production with Headlong is being staged at a function hall and music venue a few blocks further along Uxbridge Road.)
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