A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS Chichester Festival Theatre

SUNNY SUMMER KICKS AND SOARING SONGS

Here’s a joyful thing: a confection of butterscotch and sunshine, a tale of turrets and twosomes and tap-breaks, friendship and chivalry and secret passages and great legs, with glorious, soaring Gershwin songs to punt it all along. Billed as “a new musical”, the book is crafted by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson, but make no mistake: this is Plum. A young P.G. Wodehouse wrote the 1919 novel (later a 1937 film), about his own world daft screwball plots and of high-kicking Broadway hits: in the one half-serious message he was defying the cultural angst of those who think musical theatre rom-com ain’t real art. Even our hero George Bevan the Broadway composer (Richard Fleeshman) is being infected by cultural inferiority as he transfers a show to a London drenched with history. “Are we just skating along the surface?…saying things in a pretty way?”. Cutting the underwater ballet in “Kitty in the City” he moans“ I’ve something else to try – quite dark and edgy, I haven’t slept..”.
It’s a good joke, because we know that Wodehouse’s edgeless, immortal, puff-light merriment will win the day. .

So off it goes: young Lady Maud (Summer Strallen, displaying a sharp wit as well as the legendary legs) thinks she loves a dull pretentious poet, but her tyrannical aunt is forcing her to marry the rich twit Reggie. Reggie (Richard Dempsey, a divinely silly mover in bright red tights as he joins in the ‘tourist performance’ at Totleigh Towers) loves Alice the Butler’s niece. George loves Maud from the moment she flees into his stage door and disguises herself as a dancing fish. Billie the fading Broadway starlet (brassily glorious Sally Ann Triplett) bonds romantically with Maud’s father the pig-loving Earl, a proto-Emsworth (who knew that Nicholas Farrell could sing like that? Adorable). There’s revolution in the kitchen against the tyranny of Aunt Caroline , a whole new aspect of Isla Blair as Grand Old Boot; and all must be resolved at a medieval costume ball.

Rob Ashford’s direction – and matchlessly witty choreography – gather speed and impetus, from an opening trad-Broadway kickline to movement used as deftly as Wodehouse jokes to build character. All the characters get their moment, which supplies not only constant surprises but that rare, gleeful sense that everyone in the cast is enjoying themselves too. The six romantic principals have plenty of numbers and adventures, but there’s something for everyone on the stage: a one-liner here, a wild up-ended fandango from Pierre the chef and Dorcas the sturdy undercook, a rumbling orotund quotation from Keggs the Butler (Desmond Barritt, a proto-Jeeves). It might be a passing physical gag in a chorus line, an inspiredly absurd medieval hat in the costume-ball, or just the fact that Matt Wilman is always addressed by his full title of “McInnes the Burly Gardener”. Everyone matters, everyone’s on form. Even Austen the awful poet gets to recite, and Blair’s Lady Caroline (another splendid shock) caterwauls a mezzo number about spring still reverberating in my head next morning.
It’s all about happiness, overthrow of tyranny, true love, jokes about quinces, and dances daring to incorporate dishes of jelly and a giant croquembouche. Even Aunt Dahlia’s Anatole in the later novels is foreshadowed as Pierre the French chef , depressed at the banning of his snail-grater and lark-press.
And of course lovely Gershwin music: love sextets melt together from every corner and height of Christopher Oram’s adventurously revolving Totleigh Towers set, wistful or delighted solos tumble along. The very essence of 1920’s romance is distilled in Reggie’s immortal “I’m a poached egg”.
box office 01243 781312 to 27 June
Rating five  5 Meece Rating

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