Chichester Festival Theatre – until 25 August 2018
A showbiz dream came true at Chichester this week when Matt Lucas, the starring lead of Me and My Girl, had to pull out of the show on doctor’s orders and company member Ryan Pidgen stepped up to the plate to take on the role of Bill Snibson. With barely a couple of hours to rehearse, Pidgen, who was warmly received by the Chichester audience, was magnificent, delivering an opening night performance that could have been a moment straight out of 42nd Street.
Pidgen may have been the unexpected star of the evening, but in Daniel Evans’ cast, he was surrounded by the cream of British musical theatre talent. Opposite him, and in her first major leading role, Alex Young was a convincing and vocally charming Sally Smith. Interestingly, for a leading lady, the show does not give Sally too many singing highlights – but in her one stunning solo of the night, ‘Once You Lose Your Heart’, Young proved (yet again, for this website has long been in awe of her talents) why she is one of the finest performers of her generation.
The plot of Me and My Girl is a far-fetched hokum that sees the cockney working-class Snibson discover that he is a landed peer. His newly-realised upper-crust family are horrified by Snibson’s cultural roots and the narrative plays out as Snibson learns to mingle with the aristocracy, while at the same time holding onto his London heritage. There are shades of My Fair Lady in the story (and even a couple of nods to that musical too in the second half). But where Lerner and Loewe’s foundations lay in a wondrous book, Me and My Girl sits on a far flakier fable.
Snibson’s journey is all about old-fashioned class and sexual prejudice and while the love between him and Sally is unquestionably deep and sincere, she is reduced to little more than a woman who has to change her role in life to win her man. Elsewhere the excellent Siubhan Harrison is reduced to playing (wonderfully) Lady Jacqueline Carstone, a beautiful aristocrat but a woman with no depth whatsoever. Take a step back and this show is a dated cornucopia of corny cliché and caricature. It is hard to believe that the modern era has seen Stephen Fry (no less) revise the book.
And yet for all its moral flaws, Daniel Evans has fashioned a thing of beauty here, drawn solely from the excellent company that he’s assembled. In supporting roles, Caroline Quentin is the dowager Duchess of Dene, while the venerable Clive Rowe plays Sir John Tremayne – another bumbling toff and the two are simply perfection. Much of the show’s momentum is carried by crass puns and double-entendres which should, by rights, have the audience groaning. Here however they are hilarious, with Evans having drilled his cast to deliver the comedy with split second timing and perfect delivery. There’s a gorgeous twist of role reversal too, as Jennie Dale takes on the role of Parchester, the landed family’s solicitor. Dale (also, always brilliant) shines like a diamond as she tap dances her way through moments of sensational hilarity.
In the pit Gareth Valentine (who not only conducts but has also arranged the show’s score) has taken familiar melodies and revitalised them, as alongside Evans, Alistair David’s choreography is slick, imaginative and impressive.
Me And My Girl’s politics may be of the dark ages – but its ability to put grins on faces and set toes tapping is the mark of a modern show that knows how to please its audience. The talent on stage here is unmatched, and for a seaside festival of song and dance, there’s nothing finer in the country.
Runs until 25th AugustPhoto credit: Johan Persson