God damn it, voilà!

H2S

Or, a few brief thoughts about Wilton’s Music Hall‘s very, very problematic revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which closed yesterday:

  • It is very nearly impossible to kill this material. Many of this production’s reviews have rather sniffily compared this show to Loesser‘s much better-known Guys and Dolls; it’s true that workplace mores have changed more than a little since the show’s debut in 1962, but to assume any shortcomings are the fault of the material rather than the director is too easy. Done with the right (light) touch, it can play like gangbusters, even today.
  • Saying that upfront may lead you to some assumptions about this production. Those assumptions would be entirely correct.
  • It’s worth saying upfront that everybody involved here clearly respects and loves the material. The production has, for example, paid for a 9-piece band; that’s a huge outlay in a 300-seat venue, and the score – a longtime favourite of mine – sounds terrific. The singing, too, is distinguished throughout. But while everybody involved clearly loves and respects the material, it is unfortunately not absolutely clear whether everybody involved understands it.
  • A note for Benji Sperring, this production’s director: IT. IS. A. SATIRE. And that goes for every character, not just the more obviously caricatured supporting roles.
  • There’s obviously more than one way to play a character, but in this case it’s worth going back to Robert Morse‘s performance in the original (easily enough available on film), although you don’t necessarily have to imitate it. This is a story about ambition – the central character, J. Pierrepont Finch, rises from the mailroom to chairman of a huge corporation in an impossibly short time by following the pithy advice of the self-help book (itself a parody) by Shepherd Mead that gives the show its title – but it is not simply a portrayal of a ruthless young man’s swift corporate ascent, and it’s also not a treatise against the evils of big business. It’s a satire – but a gentle, knowing one.
  • The thing about Morse’s portrayal: he was adorable in the role. However duplicitous the character became, however badly he behaved towards Rosemary, his love-interest, you rooted for him. Watch the film: there’s a sweetness and a guilelessness to Morse’s performance that lets his Finch get away with pretty much anything.
  • Under Sperring’s direction, Mark Pickering plays Finch as a lizard in a suit. And if the acting choices weren’t misguided enough, it doesn’t help at all that Nic Farman, the lighting designer, chooses to illuminate Finch’s many fourth-wall-breaking takes to the audience either by bathing the stage in green light, or by isolating Finch in an ice-blue spotlight. Under those conditions, there’s no opportunity at all for Pickering to communicate anything resembling warmth – and if Finch comes across as cold, if you can’t like him, the show starts to come apart at the seams. This simply is not a story in which a villain/antihero prevails – but that’s what you get here.
  • Given the rest of the production, my inclination would be to blame the director. I’m pretty sure the performance I saw Pickering give is the performance Sperring wanted. Make of that what you will.
  • Hannah Grover’s Rosemary, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. She has the right combination of wide-eyed ingenuousness and steel backbone, she delivers a delightful ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ (yes, the show’s sexual politics are firmly rooted in the early 60s), and she’s warmly funny throughout.
  • Andrew C. Wadsworth, luxury-cast as boss JB Biggley, is an absolute delight.
  • So is Lizzii Hills’s delightfully dim Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s smart-dumb bimbo of a mistress. My inner feminist might have cringed, but Hills is so funny that I didn’t care.
  • Maisey Bawden’s Miss Jones is in the Lillias White mode – in ‘Brotherhood of Man’, she lets rip with a stream of fabulous scat-singing, rather than an operatic obbligato. It’s not quite the joke Loesser wrote, but the joke does work (at least, it worked in the 1995 Broadway revival – which, yes, I saw). It doesn’t work here because Bawden simply reads as being at least thirty years too young to portray a starchy, spinsterly senior office manager – and while Loesser didn’t write scat-singing for Miss Jones anyway, in either case the joke is about an older, conservative, straight-laced woman falling under Finch’s “spell” and letting loose at the climax of the song, rather than just a supporting character who hasn’t sung before revealing that she has a voice.
  • The production has clearly been put up on the kind of budget that makes the Southwark Playhouse look like an offshoot of the Las Vegas Strip. Mike Lees’s pop-art corporate HQ backdrop looks perfectly fine, although reports elsewhere suggest the (presumably plywood) elevator doors have been somewhat temperamental. The costumes and wigs, I’m afraid, simply look cheap, to the point where the waist of Rosemary’s dress is cinched with a length of ribbon instead of a belt.
  • Whatever the production’s shortcomings – and the production, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, has many, many shortcomings – it’s a treat to hear this music performed live, and performed well.
  • Lovely as the venue is, it is less than a treat to sit on the Wilton Music Hall’s seats, which resemble something you’d expect to find in a school assembly, for the length of the ninety-minute first act. Yes, that first act is long, and is always long. If it’s done well, it passes in a blink; if it isn’t, it’s a real arse-paralyser, and so are those chairs.

The bottom line: it doesn’t work, and I’m glad I went. The band is great, there are some incredibly talented performers in supporting roles, it’s a wonderful score, and any production of this show, on some level, is going to be worthwhile. But it’s a far more nuanced piece than this director understands, and the misguided choices surrounding the central role torpedo the production right at the top of the show. Pity.

And in future, if you’re going to see anything longer than the briefest one-act in this venue, be warned: take a cushion, or anaesthetise your buttocks before you go in.

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