FORBIDDEN BROADWAY Menier, SE1

CAN YOU FEEL THE PAIN TONIGHT? NOT A BIT.

 

Miss Saigon rhymes with One Big Yawn, a tiny helicopter wobbles over the stage and the “Viet-numb” cast. A huge-breasted “Matthew Warchus Trunchbull” domineers over a flouncing oversized Matilda and tutu-ed Billy “I love exploiting children!”. Pajama-ed figures attempt a Hernando’s Hideaway, with torches.

 

Yes, it’s here! forget the World Cup and the Olympics: for some of us the longed-for event turning up only every few years is the latest Forbidden Broadway by Gerard Alessandrini and his confreres. Musicals addicts – audiences, performers, obsessively completist critics – cram onto the Menier’s benches to cheer and hoot at parodies, subtle musical jokes and unsubtle horseplay guying our beloved shows.

 
I say beloved, because the curious thing is that the more you liked the original show, the more joy is in the send-up. Particularly with four such remarkable performers – Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis – who can not only sing like birds but have a rare and rich ability to parody themselves and their musicality in the process. Indeed the better the show targeted, the longer and more loving is the insult.

 
Thus Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gets just a brief, withering moment (“And now Alex Jennings will show us his Willie”) with “Pure Imagination” rightly guyed as lacking any. The Book of Mormon is dealt with by its creators Parker and Stone in white shirts crooning “I believe” in inflated ticket prices, clumsy lyrics, obscenity and their own lyrics. Mamma Mia gets a quick blast of “Super stupor” and Spamalot’s joke “Song that goes like this” is borrowed wholesale on the grounds that Eric Idle stole the idea in the first place.

 
But Sondheim gets an affectionate attempt to make us sing along to a high-speed patter song “Into the Words”, and the Les Miserables sequence is glorious. Its target is the show’s very longevity, as the cast shuffle woodenly round an imaginary revolve and Casey explains that when you get rotated upstage to the darkness “behind the Miserubble” the only way to stay sane is to text your mates (“On my phooone” she croons). “Bring him Home” becomes – in skilled falsetto – a plea to bring the damn thing down a key; “Master of the House” becomes a furious resentment at a half-empty matinee…

 
Other shows get a fiercer stiletto between the ribs. Like Jersey Boys (“Walk like a man, sing like a girl..”) and a memorable Act 2 opener of Humbley in Lion King regalia with a saucepan and Mickey-mouse on his head, while miserable animal characters lurch around in surgical collars spinally oppressed by their enormous headdresses. “Can you feel the pain tonight?”. There are generic sendups too: a hypermanic Liza Minnelli, prim Julie Andrews, Patti Lupone and indeed Cameron Mackintosh humping the piano in glee at the international profits. But the jewel of the evening – which quite made up for the unaccountable absence of a Stephen Ward sequence – is a marvellous take on “Once”.

 
Again I felt that curious hate-to-love, love-to-hate alchemy: I actually adored Once, with its mournful Irishry, unresolved romance and that huge “Falling Slowly” song as the bar-room band joined in. Yet there was a cathartic pleasure in seeing Lewis’ exaggeratedly morose guitar-bashing resolving bathetically into Frere Jacques with an appalling recorder-and-accordion accompaniment and leprechaun capering. It’s all bliss. And noisy. And cruel. And camp. And welcome back!
box office 0207 378 1713 to 16 August
sponsor: Pinsent Masons
rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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