Arts Theatre – until 23 June 2018
There’s something strange about the Arts Theatre. It claims to be a West End house but it only has affiliate status with the Society of London Theatre and it doesn’t look or feel like its distant cousins on Shaftesbury Avenue. There’s a nice bar/café on the street, and some of the friendliest staff, but when you go downstairs the auditorium and toilets suggest only ‘Soho Porn Cinema’.
It’s also sheltered some pretty dreadful productions – sometimes I think of it as ‘the place musicals come to die’. Well, welcome Ruthless! The Musical, because if anything deserves an early burial, this surely is it. When misguided concept meets slapdash production and drafts in a self-indulgent lead, you have a perfect storm.
Let’s start with the concept – it’s a self-styled camp cult event (those two words always invite a third and I’m being careful not to use it) in which the musical theatre genre, and several popular musicals, are spoofed. That they are ancient camp favourites such as Mame and Gypsy points even more, er, pointedly to the audience for which this is designed.
Neither as clever as Forbidden Broadway/So Jest End nor as topical as, well, anything written after about 1960, the knowing jokes may go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t do his ironing to a loop of Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim.
The plot: a Shirley Temple style moppet called Tina Denmark – think a pound shop Bonnie Langford – is determined to do anything to get the lead in her school musical Pippi Longstocking. She is variously encouraged by her sweet and Mary Tyler-Moore–ish mother, played with the only degree of convincing realism in the whole entertainment by Kim Maresca, and a lurching drag persona in a red Fanny Cradock wig who installs herself as the kid’s agent and subsequently reveals herself as Tina’s actual mother, or grandmother, or something. By that time, I’d lost the will to live, momentarily connecting when Tina arranges a fatal accident for the girl she’s understudying.
A friend told me ‘you can’t slag this off, it has Tracie Bennett in it’ and I would normally make that exception, because she’s a trouper, but here she’s playing the sort of braying drunk that made The Drowsy Chaperone such a bore. Coincidentally, there was a rumour going round the foyer that Elaine Paige had turned down this part, which must be the wisest decision EP has made in the ten years since she last appeared in a book musical in London.
Although bankrolled by proper, monied American producers, the set, costumes and direction are all cheap and cartoonish. And not cartoonish in any clever or original or inventive way.
And so to the star: Jason Gardiner is – according to Wikipedia, I’ve never seen his work – an Australian choreographer, singer, and theatre producer best known for his role as a caustic and controversial judge on the ITV show Dancing on Ice. So he’s following Craig Revel Horwood’s appearances as Miss Hannigan in Annie to be a drag performer in a musical centred on a small girl. You could overlook his lack of originality if he were any good.
Although Ruthless! The Musical has an all-female cast, it has a ‘tradition’ – since 1992, go figure – that the role of Sylvia St.Croix shall be played by a man. Again, this would be excusable if the performance Gardiner turns in were better than that expected of a recently-recruited third cover for Zaza in La Cage aux Folles on the last leg of a provincial tour, in Sunderland. In flu season.
The night I saw it, the kid was good. Almost everyone else gets shot in the second act. In The Producers, when the show is a financial disaster, Bialystock tries to persuade Frank Liebkind to ‘buy bullets, kill the actors’. Not every idea you had was mad, Max.