The Other Palace, London – until 1 April 2017
When Chicago premiered in 1975 it shook up its prohibition-era hoodlums and chorus girls with a fizzing cocktail of jazz, booze, sex and Bob Fosse choreography standing what had been the former Broadway image of gangland – 1950’s Guys and Dolls – on its head. It would be easy to dismiss The Wild Party as a flimsier variation on the same theme were it not for the fact that Michael John LaChiusa’s invention and Drew McOnie’s dance-led direction turn the same trick.
As Roxie and Velma sing in their own finale “There’s men everywhere, jazz everywhere, booze everywhere, fun everywhere …” – and for sure The Wild Party is an urgent, driven riot: making Kander and Ebb’s Chicago look safe and staid as it trundles its cartoonish characters on a hectic roller coaster of self-destruction during what’s basically an orgy.
There is an incredible array of top talent assembled – powerful singers, athletic dancers and intelligent actors – but The Wild Party lacks the wit and humour of Chicago so that its effect is limited because the book is so thin. Despite completely looking and sounding the part of a hardboiled danseuse, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is completely wasted in a role so stereotypical and sketchy it might have been written in wax crayon – and she has the best lines in the script.
In the lead Frances Ruffelle holds court as Queenie, a raddled old slapper to the life and finds some sweet pathos as a fifty something chorine who despite her lithe and lovely frame is no longer employable –Roxie Hart twenty years on. She might be even more expressive if she didn’t permanently have a cigarette in one hand and a plastic glass in the other.
As her man Burrs, long-time Valjean John Owen-Jones is a vocally ultra-powerful version of Amos Hart, still hopelessly devoted to the woman in his life but here differently disconnected from her. One of the strangest features of The Wild Party is how it almost offers an apologia for domestic violence, framing Burrs’ ill-treatment of Queenie as an outcome of her flirtatious behaviour and provocation. Owen-Jones handles it carefully and with fine control, but it’s still a curiosity.
Queenie throws a party, populated by a cavalcade of people she does and doesn’t like ranging from always-reliable Tiffany Graves as a lesbian demi-mondaine to an uncertain performance from veteran Donna McKechnie as a faded vaudeville star who seduces a couple of Jewish producers (Seb Torkia and Steven Serlin, excellent) with an exhausted stock of sex appeal: it’s like Una Stubbs’ Mrs Hudson flirting inappropriately with Sherlock and Watson.
It’s best to enjoy the show as a series of turns, for Theo Jamieson‘s shit hot band, some good tunes and thrilling dancing most notably the identical androgynous twins played by Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea. The stage just lights up when they strut their synchronised stuff.
Ultimately, there’s no plot – what little melodrama there is turns up in the last ten minutes after two hours when you felt like the designated driver at the most drunken debauched party … but couldn’t join in.