THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF MUSICAL at the Noël Coward Theatre
“Showstoppers, foot-tappers and ballads are seasoned with lyrics that, although overall are delightfully clever and witty, should also come with allergy warnings”
The Great British Bake Off has risen to heights of success from its humble beginnings. An idea inspired by country fete baking competitions. The stakes were never going to be high; consequently, the proposal was rejected by all the major broadcasters for years. So, hats off to Anna Beattie, co-founder of ‘Love Productions’ for persevering. By 2020, the eleventh series received the largest audience for a TV series ever seen on Channel Four in thirty-five years. With such a fan base, the spin off, “The Great British Bake Off Musical”, can be generously served up in the West End with pre-cooked taste appeal.
As with all reality TV, the appeal is the human element. It is the personalities and their sometimes interlocking stories that we tune in for. Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, the team behind the book, music and lyrics, have taken this premise as the main ingredient for their musical. A baker’s dozen characters mingle in the festooned marquee, held together by a tenuous and treacly love story. A marble cake’s mix of light and dark sponge. Pure indulgence, and escapism.
What ends up on our plates has the feel of a recipe-book revue, or song cycle. Showstoppers, foot-tappers and ballads are seasoned with lyrics that, although overall are delightfully clever and witty, should also come with allergy warnings. There is no doubt, however, that the musical numbers are a treat. There are no unfamiliar flavours, but they showcase the vast array of vocal talent on stage, most of whom have their own big solo.
Presiding over the proceedings are the presenters Jim (Scott Paige) and Kim (Zoe Birkett), with judges Phil and Pam: John Owen-Jones as a thinly disguised Paul Hollywood while Haydn Gwynne, as Pam, is a sassy mix of Mary Berry and Prue Leith. The contestants plough through the rounds of the competition, dishing up their back stories, establishing allies and rivals, voicing dreams and venting insecurities. Whether through song or dialogue they are pushed for time, so the scenarios and revelations are underdone, and half baked. Syrian student Hassan (Aharon Rayner) and Italian fashionista Francesca (Cat Sandison) bond over a shared feeling of not fitting in. Izzy (Grace Mouat) is ‘in it to win it’ until she gives way under the sheer weight of platitudes in the script. Claire Moore, however, is delightfully saucy as Babs the hungry (and not just for cake) granny, eliciting cheers from the crowd with her stand out number, ‘Bab’s Lament’. Moore is the leader of the double entendre – no mean feat as the whole company is grappling for a piece of the pie. At times ‘Carry On Baking’ threatens to usurp the show’s title.
Die-hard fans of the television series are well catered for, with mini-dramas pinched from the series to fill the gaps in a story as thin as spun sugar. Sliced fingers, melted ice cream and slapping strudels. And speculation about off camera romance; recreated here in the form of widow Ben (Damian Humbley) blending with self-effacing Gemma (Charlotte Wakefield) from Blackpool. A predictable path to a cloying conclusion, yet we are charmed by Wakefield’s winning presence, shedding Gemma’s humility to rise triumphant in her solo numbers.
It’s all in the presentation. It’s the icing on the cake that matters. “The Great British Bake Off Musical” is a ready-made recipe for success. The converted will guarantee that. And why not? Ultimately the force, commitment and musicality of the performers prevent it from sinking in the middle.
“With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all”
Why did the physicist Werner Heisenberg visit his former colleague Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg was German, Bohr Danish and half-Jewish, and Copenhagen was under Nazi occupation. It is a question we hear asked on numerous occasions during Michael Frayn’s award-winning play from 1998, in this new production directed by Emma Howlett following initial direction by Polly Findlay.
There are just three characters in the re-enactment of this puzzling wartime conundrum. The impetuous, excitable Heisenberg played by the excellent Philip Arditti, the older and more ponderous Bohr (Malcolm Sinclair), and between them Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Haydn Gwynne).
There is minimal set (designed by Alex Eales) with the stage stripped back to its black painted walls. A few parlour chairs and a sideboard suffice for Bohr’s drawing room. Hovering above everything is a large illuminated white halo; at the beginning, perhaps indicating the movement of an electron orbiting its atomic nucleus. By the end of the play, surely portraying the rim of an exploding mushroom cloud. Beneath it, there is not much in the way of movement, the three players pace up and down, placing and replacing chairs in a series of socially-distanced triangles. For one brief moment, Heisenberg breaks out into a short run.
What we do have are words, lots of them: quantum mechanics, the wave equation, the Copenhagen Interpretation, relativity, uncertainty, complementarity. Heisenberg and Bohr discuss and defend their treatises, their arguments flying back and forth like others may argue the merits of a United versus a City. Between them sits Margrethe, sometime observer, sometime inquisitor, umpire, and arbiter. It is a delightful irony that she is the one who offers up the clearest explanation of any of the physics talk, pragmatically bringing the scientific theories down to earth.
With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all. Arditti’s performance is full of energy, with driving momentum in his attempt to prove that Heisenberg’s motives should not be misunderstood. Sinclair’s twinkly eyed portrayal of Bohr shows us a lot of his charm but, through all the science, we do not see much of the man beneath. Haydn Gwynne emphasises Margrethe’s support as the scientist’s wife. Her loving glances towards Heisenberg as he replaces the son she tragically lost, turn into steely stares as she mistrusts his motives towards her husband.
Heisenberg is primarily remembered for his Uncertainty Principle. And the play exploits the notion that there is so much uncertainty about Heisenberg himself. To what extent did he deliberately slow down any progress in developing a Nazi atomic bomb, or did he just not understand enough of the science? And as we take another look at Heisenberg arriving on Bohr’s doorstep in 1941 is it to gloat over the progress of the German nuclear programme, or to suggest a scientists’ pledge not to work for either side in developing an ultimate weapon of mass destruction?
The most poignant moment of the evening comes as Heisenberg explains hearing about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima whilst interned at Farm Hall in Godmanchester. This fact is first enjoyed by this audience as a piece of local history, but then the penny drops that all this talk about science is not just theoretical but can lead to such apocalyptic results.
So why did Heisenberg visit Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg’s final words, “Uncertainty [is] at the heart of things”.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Nobby Clark
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17th July then UK tour concludes at the Rose Theatre Kingston