Chichester Festival Theatre – until 25 August 2018
Actor Ryan Pidgen will remember this night. It was the moment when he went out on stage an understudy and came back a star after single-handedly saving a show and the neck of its worried director.
The legend goes, or at least the version from artistic director Daniel Evans, that Pidgen stepped up, with just a few hours rehearsal, to play the lead on the opening night in Chichester Festival Theatre’s big summer musical Me and My Girl after its star, Matt Lucas, was unwell.
Evans, directing the show, came out to tell a hugely disappointed audience that doctors had told Lucas to rest his voice. “I have to say that tonight Ryan Pidgen is my hero,” he said. And you know what? In a very 42nd Street moment, the young actor turned those groans of disappointment from Lucas fans, into rousing cheers after giving a flawless performance and earning a jubilant standing ovation.
This big crowd-pleaser of a musical doesn’t put a foot wrong. Yes, it’s derivative and twee. Despite being revised by Stephen Fry, the basic concept owes a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan, Bernard Shaw and even Wodehouse. The story is terribly formulaic, obeying the Chichester format of dazzling ensemble opening and closing numbers, plus lots of cheesy, feelgood turns from the leads.
But Evans, still a new boy at Chichester, has learnt what his regulars like and, more importantly, what could transfer to the West End. And this theatrical whimsy will be popular. I guarantee you’ll have ‘The Lambeth Walk’ or, worse, ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’, stuck in your head after seeing the musical. It’s infectious.
Pidgen looked uncomfortably hot throughout the performance but he nailed the dialogue with panache.
He delivered the gags and double entendres with easy confidence and got laughs in all the right places, tap-danced athletically and sang with the assurance of a leading man.
Hell, you’d think that his name had been above the title all along.
The actor plays Bill Snibson (or at least until Wednesday when Matt Lucas threatens to return), a rough, but likeable, diamond from Lambeth who suddenly finds himself the heir to an ancient title and £100,000 a year – providing he can prove that he is a fit and proper person to inherit.
But he comes with a girlfriend, fish-market worker, Sally Smith (a vibrant turn from Alex Young), who is certainly not the right class of gal for the new up-and-coming lord.
“It’s a dream, innit?” She says like someone who has won the Euro lottery and is overwhelmed by the life-changing amount.
A class battle ensues with the occasionally terrifying gorgon, Maria, Duchess of Dene (Caroline Quentin revealing a surprisingly good operatic voice in Song of Hareford) determined to lick the amiable costermonger into shape.
Poor Bill is adamant that he will not to change but he’s a fish out of water, not accepted by the snooty gentry or the servant classes.
What’s more the duchess is determined to split him and Sally up and marry him off to the title-chasing Lady Jaqueline Carstone (Siubhan Harrison).
Their only ally is Sir John Tremayne (Clive Rowe under-used), lifelong friend and bumbling suitor of the tweedy old bird.
This revival has some great set pieces. Lambeth Walk (obviously) but Evans comes up with a brilliantly conceived nightmarish, surreal moment, for Leaning On A Lamppost.
The G&S Ruddigore moment, with the ghosts of Harefords past, is effective and Jenny Dale’s big moment, singing and dancing The Family Solicitor is fun.
There’s a bally lot of over-acting going on but, hey, this is comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments.
Considering the circumstances Alex Young and her temporary boyfriend have a lot of charisma and make a charming couple.
I personally would like to see Chichester be a bit more adventurous with their summer musicals and come up with a show that is forward-looking and innovative rather than dragging yet another vintage classic back from the archives.
However, I’m clearly in the minority if tonight’s audience is anything to go by.
Congratulations Ryan Pidgen, this was your night.
Me and My Girl runs in the festival theatre until August 25.
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