Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh – until 4 February 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Pop quiz. Hum a song from Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is at the Playhouse until Saturday. Aha, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen’s title number. Very good. And?
One or two of the songs beyond that catchy theme are rather pleasant in the context of the show, but half an hour later, I can’t recall a single one. But this touring production has a secret weapon…Joanne Clifton, the Strictly Come Dancing star who, after her casting was announced, became the 2016 winner with sportscaster Ore Oduba.
Fans of Strictly and spin-off It Takes Two know her to be a hugely talented dancer with a sharp sense of humour and sparky personality. All of that shines through as she plays Millie Dillmount, a small-town gal determined to bag a husband in the big city by being a Modern. It sounds like stunt casting, the parachuting-in of a TV face to sell tickets, but the lovely surprise is that it isn’t. Clifton isn’t solely a dancer, she has a pretty decent voice and fine comic timing.
The less lovely surprise, though, is that Clifton doesn’t really get a chance to show off what she’s known for. Here’s a show set in the Twenties, with a scene in a speakeasy, the perfect excuse for an elaborate Charleston co-starring Sam Barrett’s suitor, Jimmy Smith. And while we get a teeny bit of that Strictly favourite once or twice, and some tango in the speakeasy scene itself, there’s no elaborate showcase for Clifton’s particular genius.
She’s still good value in Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan’s tale of ambition and white slavery, but a couple of spotlights – I’m not asking anyone to rewrite this Tony-winning production – would’ve distracted nicely from a couple of big problems.
First, there’s soap star Michelle Collins as Mrs Meers, whose hotel for young ladies is a front for nefarious activities. Collins has put in some terrific performances over the years, but this isn’t one of them – her dragon lady accent would disgrace your average Abanazer and most of her dialogue in the first act is is impossible to make out.
Collins has a solo number, They Don’t Know, which proves a sadly appropriate title. What the heck was she singing? God bless her for trying really hard, but director Racky Plews – if it wasn’t actually her idea – really should have had a word.
Collins is on firmer ground in the second act, when she’s required to do the fake accent rather less, and she gets a good few laughs.
Bad luck means Collins also features in the scenes with an equally infuriating problem – henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Fu (the hardworking Damian Buhagiar and Andy Yau) speak their native Chinese. Which would be fine if the surtitles could actually be seen; a titchy screen above them has the English translation in tiny letters. In shades of beige. My companion didn’t even notice it until I’d pointed it out at the interval.
This is a genuine storytelling problem and the fact that the show has reached Edinburgh without it being fixed is a huge headscratcher.
If you know Thoroughly Modern Millie at all, chances are it’s from the 1967 film, one of the standout scenes of which has Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore make a dodgy elevator work by tap dancing. It’s immensely charming and huge fun. Here, the moment is thrown away, a brief line of script tossed out at the back of the stage, behind an ever-adapting arch which makes flapper-era New York seem like a series of dungeons.
This isn’t a Thoroughly Middling Millie, there are genuinely pleasurable moments. Jimmy and Millie’s love duet I Turned the Corner is affecting, a perfect showcase for Barrett’s warm tenor; Katherine Glover and Jenny Fitzpatrick are terrific as the naive Miss Dorothy and showgirl turned socialite Muzzy; Forget About the Boy shows us how tight the ensemble is; and surtitles be damned, Mammy in Chinese is a hoot.
And then there’s Graham MacDuff as Trevor, the boss Millie wants to get her claws into. In the first act he impresses with his comic skills and baritone, before carrying out a daring theatrical heist with the funniest drunk acting I’ve ever seen.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is awash with talented players and is very nearly a really good show. A few tweaks and it may get there yet.