ESSEX GIRL COMES OF AGE
I rather like Denise van Outen. A trouper, a trained musical-theatre talent who had to make it (and she did, triumphing in CHICAGO here and on Broadway) by first becoming a celeb: presenting a couple of vapid TV shows and being named Rear of the Year. That tells us uncomfortably much about star-casting shallowness, but equally proves van Outen’s determination, discipline and taste for the hard graft of the live stage.
And, of course, she has a glorious voice, considerable acting talent and endearing presence. Here, in cheeky TOWIE style, she plays Stef: a lingerie entrepreneuse, gossip-column veteran exploiting trashy fame but, in her thirties, ever more uneasy with its pressures. Hard to think of anyone more fit to perform such a part – and indeed co-write it (with Terry Ronald). The result is rather better than a couple of snarky male reviewers suggested during its recent tour. Maybe it’s a girl thing.
It’s a simple, slight plot: alone in a hotel room (‘Minibottles of Molton Brown, a bed the size of Belgium but walls like Kleenex”) she restlessly shrugs into a tracksuit between media appearances, roaming around beneath a surreal dangling mobile of teenage memories – T shirts, a bike, an old phone, toys and fripperies of the girl she used to be. She takes calls from her loyal and broody husband, depressed by the way their sex life has become “polite”, hesitates about having a baby and reminisces ever more intensely about her schoolday lover Sean. He has begun to send her cheeky Facebook pokes, and fancies coming over to pick up where they left off now that she’s a Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year. That Sean is a pig is apparent to us, but not, at first, to her . Golden memories flood in.
The format is a brave one, a one-woman jukebox musical (only the title song is not an 80s or 90s cover) but holds up surprisingly well. Van Outen has the character’s brittle-coarse Essex girl persona off pat, and adds an awkward gentleness which, for all her confidential asides through the fourth wall, builds an illusion that Stef is, indeed, alone and at a crisis point. She conjures up her teenage years with references to Aramis, Funny Feet, Guns ‘n Roses, Ibiza raves, and how her pal Slaggy Sue melted her Rampant Rabbit on the electric heater because Charles and Di had split up and she was “distracted by Nicholas Witchell”. It is not, I must admit, my own nostalgic period, nor are these anthems my songs of choice. But it’s a proper story, and I wanted to know her ultimate response to the booty-call.
The second act develops into sharper drama and deeper pain as she brings herself to remember how that firat love actually ended. There is real courage and feeling when she scrubs off the defensive makeup and sings of loss and humiliation, pallid and distraught and looking all of Stef’s age. If this is a showcase, I hope it makes some directors think seriously of making better use of Denise van Outen’s gifts.
box office 020 7907 7092 to 13 Sept