USHERS Arts Theatre, WC2

SMALL BUDGET, BIG HEART, WELCOME UP WEST
I had been wanting for a while to catch up on this fringe squib about the lives of front-of-house theatre workers, and with devilish cunning Max Reynolds’ production, sharing the Arts with American Idiot, runs four matinees a week – tues, Weds, two on Friday and one on Saturday. Thus not only us theatre anoraks with too many booked-up nights, but actual ushers themselves can go.

And should. From Yianni Koutsakos’ and James Oban’s musical (book by James Rottger) I expected larks, and I got them. Not least from Alexandra Parkes in a stonking professional début as big Rosie the usherette-cum-stalker. She does a riotously raunchy, fabulously fearless number in a basque, about stalking Michael Ball, and crowns it with a very, very slow-motion performance of the splits.

I expected pastiche and joyful in-jokes and got them too: a fine Billy Elliott joke, some clever parody numbers, often half-hidden references, and plenty on the imaginary big man himself, Sir Andrew MacTosser, Most Powerful Man In Theatre. I relished the cracks about the ways of audiences: tourists, critics, tiger Mums and brats, stagies, husbands dragged along unwillingly, snogging lovers, and the awkward tardy bumbling pests who cavil at programme prices and insist that there is no spoon in their ice-cream when there is. Under the lid. I nodded at the central conceit of the villainous Theatre Manager Robin (a basso profundo Harry Stone, mugging like a more heavyset James Dreyfus, urging upselling and spend-per-head. It was nice that the show these downtrodden ushers are working on is “Oops I did it again – the Britney Spears Musical”, complete with tacky merchandise – “if it got any cheaper, Bill Kenwright would be touring it”. I like the set too, the back view of the kiosk.
All good fun. But I had not expected it to be so touching: a lightly taken, cheerfully poignant reflection on unappreciated lives and private dreams. The action takes place in the half-hour before the house opens, during the interval, and after the end of the invisible show, with occasional video-training screen moments from the evil Robin. Rosie, loves all leading men and hates actresses, new girl Lucy is fresh out of drama school and hoping for a break, handsome Stephen has toured as Joseph but yearns in a high tenor for character parts (“I want Phantom, not that random? Bloke who gets the girl in the end!”). Above all there is Gary (Ben Fenner) who has a chance to work in Austria but may have to leave his lover Ben behind. Poor Ben has suddenly realized that nobody wants to be an usher, nobody trains three years to sell ice-cream “always watching, never participating”. Gary’s aria about love and choice has one of the best couplets ever in a musical: “Once in a world of ice cream and joy / At a kiosk of wonders, a boy met a boy…”. Lovely.
And of course there’s a happy ending, a big reveal, and an OTT tap-dancing curtain call. Eighty minutes well spent, and a grin from the real ushers as you leave. Small budget, big heart, lovely show.

Box Office 020 7836 8463
http://www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk to 18 Oct
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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