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THE A to Z of Mrs P Southwark Playhouse, SE1

WALKING THE STREETS, A FAR FROM LOST SOUL

Phyllis Pearsall became one of London’s great urban legends, through her own barnstorming memories and a fictionalized biography.  A young wife, a painter,  walks out on her husband in Venice in 1936, arrives in London,  gets lost once too often,  and resolves to create an indexed street-map of every borough. She walks 3000  miles of 23,000 streets and produces the A to Z street atlas we all love.    Here, in a love song to the teeming city,  she is  “Drawing the line, every road, every sign, The streets flow like wine, for this is our time!”.

It’s a grand romance. We have all in youth walked city streets, broke and adventurous, with a kind of love.   Over the years there have been weary reiterations of duller truths:  it wasn’t quite the first indexed atlas  (Bartholomew’s existed),  walking every street was unnecessary, what with Council maps and plans available,  and her father was a street-map maker (albeit a failing businessman) so it wasn’t quite a maverick idea.   Oh, and the actual drawing was done by an unsung draughtsman, Mr Fountain.

He does, in fact, appear here, endearingly played by Sidney Livingstone.  For this curious new musical by Diane Samuels and /Gwyneth Herbert draws from both the romantic legend of the lone steps and the factual conflicts of Phyllis’ life:  her bombastic Hungarian father Sandor who registered the company,  her runaway mother who died in an insane asylum, the plane crash from which Phyllis survived seriously injured, and her final determination to leave the company in Trust for its employees.

If that sounds a weak and confusing storyline for a musical,   so it proves.  It is wonderfully set beneath a multitude of dangling books, postcards, suitcases, street-signs, old telephones and newspapers;  Issy Suttie with her likeable clown looks is a beguiling lead, and  Sam Buntrock’s direction gives the ensemble a bustling, jostling city vigour to keep things rolling. But Samuels’ book falters: the narrative begins brightly with Phyllis’ arrival and a lovely song about London, but then  leaps crazily to and fro with flashbacks to her childhood, her parents’ first meeting well before that, and the end of their stormy marriage. You need to have looked up her life story or you could be lost, unsure what time-frame you’re in from minute to minute.

It is frustrating because Gwyneth Herbert’s lyrics are often excellent, almost Sondheimish, using tongue-twisting alphabetical lists of roads, streets, lanes and avenues and occasionally  a bitter gem like “A child needs a family like a pussy needs a well”.   The live music is pleasant enough, again Sondheimish though without his  hypnotic dash.  There are some good funny moments in the second half as she struggles to sell into shops, and one fine dramatic confrontation with her appalling father.  He is Michael Matus, a strong singer but wholly unable – who would be? – to make the choleric, noisy and overbearing Sandor even remotely likeable.   But there’s a grand bravura performance, often in lingerie,  by Frances Ruffelle as the troubled runaway mother.

box office 020 7407 0234  to   29 March             Sponsor: Sandfords

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating/

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