Touring – reviewed at Greenwich Theatre, London
Side by Side, Sondheim on Sondheim, A Spoonful of Sherman, a Shovelful of… Schwartz, Songs from the Shows, a somewhat unenchanted evening with <insert name here> – may the gods preserve us from compilation shows. Please, people: write a musical, produce a musical, perform in a musical but don’t cut it up into over-sugared bite-sized chunks to feed us like infants.
The genius of musical theatre is how effectively songs blend with and illuminate a good story. Subtracting them from the characters, the context and the choreography often shows up how inadequate they are as standalone ballads or anthems. In the case of the Sherman Brothers, it shows also how solidly they wrote for children or Disney or both, there’s scarcely an adult romantic duet or a recognisable torch song in their entire repertoire.
Between Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Winnie the Pooh, there’s barely a song that couldn’t be used to put children to bed. The publicity says this is the ‘soundtrack of your childhood’ but you’d need now to be pushing 60 to have been a wide-eyed innocent when Julie Andrews first trilled at that animatronic robin on the window sill in 1964, a year whose other criminal acts included The Great Train Robbery, the construction of Milton Keynes and the first episode of Crossroads.
You can’t blame the performers – you might think with her skill and experience Sophie-Louise Dann deserves better choices of work than peddling this round the provinces, but almost everyone makes a fist of what they’re given. I particularly liked the singing and piano work of Mark Read, proving that some ex-boyband members have actual musical competence: his sensitive and supported rendition of ‘River Song’ from Tom Sawyer was the most, perhaps the only, grown-up piece of the night.
But the linking narrative is schmaltz, badly written and pertly delivered by a company whose eyebrows are working overtime to point what are really quite uninteresting histories, with the possible exception of the moment Robert Sherman leads a squadron of just eight men to relieve the concentration camp at Dachau. And then we’re right back to the thumbs-in-our-braces step-in-time jollity.
The costumes, by the way, are nightmarish: a series of mid-century wallpaper patterns realised in black, white and rust. And when not reciting trite observations about the Shermans, the cast are perpetually shifting the two onstage pianos for absolutely no dramatic effect whatsoever.
This is a format which has long passed its sell-by date, even if the material were more worthy of adult audiences.
And when towards the bitter end, the company encouraged the audience to clap along to ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, it really was a terrible vision of what life will be like in the care home.