Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 10 October 2021
It is a truth universally acknowledged that American dollars thrown liberally at failing states rarely elicit loyalty or affection. In that sense, Irving Berlin’s 1950 parody of US foreign relations, Call Me Madam, is timeless.
When US socialite, Sally Adams, is made Ambassador of the Duchy of Lichtenburg she waits for the potential Prime Minister, Cosmo Constantine, to come begging for aid. When Cosmo arrives, however, he expresses no interest in money.
Giving and haggling over money is how the US brokers power. With the tables turned, Sally starts offering Cosmo money. He doesn’t want it. The more he says no, the more she offers. And the more she falls in love.
Meanwhile, her chinless junior attache, Kenneth, is bewitched by the lovely Princess Marina. For Sally, this is another part of the learning journey. She had thought a Duchy would be full of Dutch people. She discovers it is a state where dukes are the titular rulers. Marina lives with her parents in the palace next door.
Rosemary Ashe and Richard Gibson lead a joyous cast that raise the bar
So far, so funny, but even a timeless piece like Call Me Madam can feel simplistic and dated. What saves it from disappearing into that hole is Mark Giesser’s playful direction and the stellar leads – Rosemary Ashe and Richard Gibson. They lead a joyous cast that raise the bar across two hours.
The costumes are terrific – particularly Sally’s dresses – and there is a very funny scene of traditional celebration featuring local cheese, geriatric dancing, and an ocarina player.
The four-piece orchestra – plus the ocarina player – bring alive a score that is harmonious and humorous but boasts only one memorable song: You’re Just In Love.
Ashe is a veteran of musicals. Her high-energy singing and delivery drive the action. Gibson does some classic comedy turns as Cosmo Constantine – his expressions speak a thousand words. They are ably aided and abetted by an intergenerational cast including Beth Burrows who channels Villanelle in her role as Princess Maria, and Daniel Breakwell as Kenneth.
Call Me Madam is not the finest musical, but it’s given a fine outing at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.