Colchester Mercury Theatre – until 10 October 2015
This is an artful wheeze. Take the story from the sunniest of films, a 1957 cheer-up British Lion starring Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles. Bolt on some classic Irving Berlin songs, and you’ve jukeboxed a stage musical. Director-writer Thom Sutherland has done this – fresh from a London success with Grand Hotel – for a cheerful touring show with a six-piece band. I saw it at the Mercury, which produces it, before it squares its shoulders and toots off round the country. A thin Monday house was hard to stir, but the frolicking energy of the cast and the sheer good-humoured Ealingness of the story got us going. Hard not to, with so much help from the Berlin tunes and lyrics.
The story sees a struggling screenwriter and his wife – Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford (so glorious lately in Seven Brides) – unexpectedly inheriting from disreputable Uncle Simon a fleapit cinema in Sloughborough (“the Venice of England, if Venice had fewer canals and more lino factories”). It has an ageing ticket-lady Mrs Fazackalee, her nerdy son Tom, and the drunken projectionist Percy. The blustering owner of the big rival cinema wants to buy it as a car park, together with his scheming wife Ethel (Ricky Butt, a born show-stealer). Their daughter Marlene rebels and joins the Bijou lot, who restore the cinema’s fortunes and honour its past as a music-hall by doing burlesque in the interval.
The scope for tap breaks and leaping ensemble choreography (by Lee Proud) is obvious, and done with ferocious verve from the very first scene in the Railway Arms, with Mrs F. on the piano and Uncle Simon drinking himself to death on a yard of ale while the rest of the cast leap on tables. There are explosions of energy all through, notably a fabulous cleaning-up scene (the set by David Woodhead is a gorgeous thing of barley-sugar-pillars, red velvet, portable townscapes and a neatly revolving staircase). A charming romantic tap shows off Tom and Marlene : Christina Bennington and Sam O”Rourke, the latter endearingly singing about stepping out in top hat and tails while actually wearing a duffle-coat with his woolly gloves on strings through the sleeves. And there’s much carolling of “Always” from the leads: Pitt-Pulford’s voice is pure honey.
As for the interval performances Matthew Crowe, having somewhat overdone the overemphasis as the dopey trainee solicitor, suddenly comes into his own as a full-on drag artiste in a bustle. And Bennington turns shy Marlene into a high-octane belter leading a spirited fan-dance with fans made, naturally, of celluloid film strips.
But as in the days of Rutherford and Miles it’s the oldies who walk off with it: Liza Goddard turns the ticket-seller into a middle-aged but game blonde mourning her boozy husband and doting on a pampered cat (“He can’t chase the rats, he’s allergic to animal hair”). Her “How deep is the Ocean” is genuinely affecting, properly cracked in character. And Brian Capron – completely unrecognizable as my all-time favourite Coronation Street villain – is a grand Percy Quill.
Regarding musical form, it can’t make the top table: Southerland and musical director Mark Aspinall use the old songs skilfully, with well-crafted dialogue breaks and attention to character, but in the first half songs tend to stop the action dead rather than move it on. The second half moves far better: and as the show moves on and grows, the first half will sharpen. And you can certainly go home whistling it. It’s Irving Berlin. You have to.
box office 01206 573948 to 10 Oct
then touring http://www.thesmallestshowonearth.co.uk/