Chichester Festival Theatre – until 25 August 2018
The sun has got his hat on, England’s in the semi-final under a chap with a proper waistcoat, and Noel Gay’s 1937 musical is a great big, lovely, silly, dancing elephant of an all-British vintage musical. It is delivered with nimble glee under Daniel Evans, with designer Lez Brotherston providing coups-de-set, and nicely bonkers choreographic flourishes by Alistair David (some very camp armour, top bathing-beauty towel work, and even hula-hoops).
The musical director Gareth Valentine leads his sharp arrangements under everyone’s flying feet, his head just visible through a terrifyingly vulnerable triangular orchestra-pit in the stage, where he is imperilled nightly as ‘The Lambeth Walk’ rages above him. He even takes the trouble to pop up in full pearly-king outfit for the curtain call. And while it takes a lot to get a Chichester audience to join in with “Oi!”, a few actually did…
But almost best of all, on the press night – with the star poor Matt Lucas suffering throat problems – we saw one of those storming understudy moments. Ryan Pidgen took on the central role of Bill Snibson, the geezerish coster-and-cardsharp who finds himself unwilling heir to a Dukedom. Provided that – in the screwball 1930s plot – he can satisfy the trustees, Duchess Maria and Sir John Tremayne, that he can fit into high society and agree to drop his beloved Sally.
And with due respect to the billed star, Pidgin inhabited and invigorated the part with immense, shining humour and confidence. He was verbally nimble (there are a lot of music-hall gags on words like aperitif and Kipling, hurrah) and lines like “This is Lady Brighton” – “Ah, I know your husband, the pier”).
As for the physical challenge, he was all there in character and springing movement and even had the tigerskin-puppetry moment nailed. Pidgen also has a glorious lyrical voice displayed in the beautifully staged Leaning On a Lamppost’ number, before it turns into a misty nightmare dream-sequence as he seeks his vanished Sally. So that exuberant, hastily rehearsed triumph was an extra thrill, a standing ovation, and a good theatre moment.
But it is altogether a fine evening, and well worth reviving the old show (Rose & Furber’s book updated of course in 1985 by Stephen Fry). Caroline Quentin is wonderful as the auntly iron-lady Duchess, reluctantly enamoured of her Sir John (who sadly has not quite enough to do, given that he’s Clive Rowe, but you can’t have everything). Jennie Dale’s Parchester, entrusted with the mischievous G & S echoes as the family solicitor, tap-dances ferociously round the stage. Siubhan Harrison as the designing Jacquie executes a terrifying bathtime seduction scene on poor Bill and Alex Young as Sally, out of place in her print frock, cardigan and specs, is remarkably touching. Evans makes sure she is a carefully downbeat foil to all the glamour: studiedly awkward at first, fretting that her pygmalioned lover now “even swears posh”, she erupts spiritedly into the pearly-king invasion, but is poignantly alone with“Once you lose your heart”.
She gets it back all right. ‘Course she does. Because it’s a joyful, hopeful fairytale of a show. Just what we need.
box office 01243 781312 to 12 May
if you think one’s missing, it is because in shows like this, the fifth always should be the official musicals-mouse for choreographer and musical director…