Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 4 March 2017
“It’s high time, time that I awoke” … The Menier’s festive musical is always to look forward to and this year’s is no exception – a revival of the classic She Loves Me, based on Miklós László’s play Parfumerie which has been remade more than once as films The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail. Recently seen on Broadway in a superlative rendition that was the first ever show to be live-streamed there, Joe Masterhoff’s book pits warring Budapest shop employees Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash against each other, little knowing that they are corresponding anonymously through a lonely hearts column – will they get together in the end? What do you think?
Matthew White‘s production is as pretty as a picture, as a music box in fact, Paul Farnsworth‘s luxe design emerging as an exceptional piece of work, using four mini revolves to great effect – the shop’s interior looks particularly stunning. And blessed with such cachet, and the strong possibility of a West End transfer, the venue once again attracts a top-notch cast. Mark Umbers and Scarlet Strallen alternately spar and swoon as the main lovers, real-life couple Dominic Tighe and Katherine Kingsley play fellow amorous employees Ilona and Kodaly, even relatively minor roles like Ladislav get the likes of Alastair Brookshaw playing them.
And with such quality, the show can’t help but shimmer like a bauble under the fairy lights. With Jerry Bock’s supremely tuneful score to hand, played gorgeously under Catherine Jayes’ musical direction, Strallen’s crystalline soprano and Umbers’ genial warmth make their love/hate struggle highly watchable. And the distribution of the good songs means everyone gets a chance to shine – Tighe’s indecently rapturous presence, Vincent Pirillo‘s hilarious maître d’, Les Dennis‘ avuncular shop owner. Kingsley would steal the show with her wry Ilona but Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad whisks it from under her nose with a lovable cheekiness.
But for all that She Loves Me is giddily enjoyable, it’s also another example of a slightly worrying trend towards conservatism. As with Half A Sixpence, the show leans heavily into the comfort of the nostalgic and whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s another major musical that presents us with an all-white cast. And if you’re of a mind to think ‘well, Budapest in the 1930s wouldn’t have black people in it’, Howells’ Arpad Laszlo is played with a broad Welsh accent, Kingsley’s Ilona Ritter is cockney(ish) so the ‘traditional’ argument just doesn’t wash.
For it’s not about accuracy, musicals such as these aren’t anything like documentaries. What they are, or what they should aim to be IMHO, is a reflection of the societies in which they play. And in Britain in 2016, and in London in particular, that we can have shows like this, like Half A Sixpence, like Soho Cinders, which haven’t got a single person of colour in their casts feels wrong and a betrayal of the huge potential that theatre has to expand our minds. We need to do better, which is an odd note on which to end this review of a lovely show but if we don’t start these conversations now, when will we?
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)Booking until 4th March