Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 4 March 2017
O THE PRETTINESS, O THE JOKES… Our heroine gets a job as sales clerk in Maraczek’s perfumery by selling a customer is gorgeous hand-painted musical candy box. Which sums up the show: a decorative, ravishingly pretty container full of irresistible treats. Characters to love, properly funny jokes, soaring melodies and fabulously witty lyrics (it was a treat to see the lyricist himself, the aged Sheldon Harnick, joining the curtain call and saying, justifiably, that the little Menier’s is the best production of it he’s ever seen.)
Camp but sincere, mischievous and intelligent, light as air with a fluttering heart and a Christmassy conclusion, this romance of 1930’s Budapest is the tonic for the moment. It’s been around a few times: Miklos Laszlo’s play about sparring colleagues who are anonymous pen-pals inspired the films “The shop around the corner” and “You’ve got Mail”, and better than either this 1963 Broadway musical by Bock and Harnick.
Matthew White directs, on its first UK outing since Stephen Mear did it with his own stunning choreography at Chichester. So I feared the dancing might not thrill the heart as much this time.
But with little space for big numbers Rebecca Howell delivers sharp wit instead, from the first moment when an arriving worker jumps over a passing postman. The bust-up sequence in the Cafe Imperiale is chokingly funny, daren’t take your eyes off it for a second; the accelerating craziness of the Christmas-shopping finale has the ensemble of eight half breaking their necks while wearing full 1950s rich- ladies-who-lunch finery, perms and feathered hats.
As to the look of it, it isn’t often I look at the first line in my notebook and fine “O THE PRETTINESS!” in capitals the gilt, roses, grapes, lovebirds, shining bottles and barocco curlicues of old Mittel-Europa are enough to drive you straight onto the Eurostar for a taste of Budapest. Which would probably disappoint, compared to this dream.
But the point is that it is really, really funny: Scarlett Strallen as romantic, stroppy yet lovesick Amalia is perfection, all comic sincerity and vulnerable spirit. I want to see her “Where’s my shoe?” number every day for the rest of my life. Her lover Georg is Marc Umbers, just dislikeable enough at first; and as old Maraczek Les Dennis, newly liberated from being a reformed burglar with a heart-attack on Coronation Street, reminds us of what a poignantly likeable, gently funny stage performer he is.
But all the roles are taken perfectly, and all have their moment of glory in this peerlessly generous piece. 17 year old Callum Howells as Arpad the messenger-boy; nervous kindly Ladislav is Alastair Brookshaw; Cory English’s head waiter, surrounded by crashing silver trays; all in turn stop the show. And the lovely thing is that somehow this cast convince you, from the start, that they really are daily confreres, colleagues and friends. They make you want to apply for a job in a Budapest parfumerie half a century ago. And if that isn’t pure stage fantasy, what is?
box office 020 7378 1713 to 4 March