When all around is strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned plate of… farce. Thirty-seven years after its debut performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, Michael Frayn’s play of backstage antics bleeding into on stage catastrophe is as thigh-slappingly funny as ever.
For West End audiences used to the meta-theatricality of Mischief Theatre’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ will find themselves on familiar territory here – Mischief’s hugely successful show it essentially a full-length take on Frayn’s final act. What this production allows however is a look behind the scenes, seeing the love triangles, squabbles and gossip that take places in corners the audience normally cannot see. Act One introduces the array of wonderfully exuberant characters in rehearsal, Act Two takes us literally behind the scenes to show how love breaks this particularly touring company apart, and Act Three takes us further along the tour when the actor’s exasperation causes absolute chaos onstage.
The joy is seeing all the jokes set up in Act One come to fruition in Act Three. Jeremy Herrin’s production keeps the energy high and the pace quick. His ensemble leap to the challenge. Sarah Hadland is gossipy dame using balletic posture and glued on grins to see the show through. Richard Henders plays an excellent Frederick Fellowes, epitomising the actor seeking meaning for every move he makes. Simon Rouse plays a drunken octogenarian with aplomb and Lloyd Owen is a suitably sarcastic and exasperated director. Meera Syal, as Dotty Otley, lives up to her name, unable to remember when to bring sardines on and when to bring them off.
Max Jones’ set is nicely modern, and the costumes fit into the present day well. This is pastiche of a genre that will always please. The audience tonight was guffawing in the stalls. My only reservation is in the casting – it could have been a little more inventive. That aside, this is a gloriously silly evening of comedy that will leave anyone with sore cheeks and good spirits. Fans of Mischief Theatre would be advised to check this out, along with anyone else interested in the theatricality of theatre and what madcap relationships go on behind the scenes. It might leave you wondering why anyone would get involved in the game of theatre. But it’s the precariousness of live theatre itself that will always be the most entertaining thing on stage.
“The book and score are entirely forgettable; the rhymes from a Hallmark card and devoid of wit or charm”
In 1996, eight years after the now legendary film, starring Tom Hanks, hit American screens, Big – The Musical premiered on Broadway. Nearly 25 years later, Morgan Young, director, choreographer and chief architect of this Dominion production, has finally realised his dream to bring it to the London stage. It has not aged well. Despite the inordinate amount of money clearly spent on this production, and a few very good performances, the whole show seems distinctly creaky, and slightly tawdry too, like a ride at a cheap fairground on which you slightly fear for your safety.
The story is that of 12 year old Josh Baskin (Jay McGuiness), who, sick of being small, makes a wish at a travelling carnival to be big, and wakes up in the morning with the body of a full-grown man. Fleeing from his terrified mother (Wendi Peters), who fails to recognise him, and with the aid of his best friend Billy (Jobe Hart in last night’s performance), he winds up in New York, where he rises to success at an ailing toy company owned by George MacMillan (Matthew Kelly), getting romantically entangled with Susan (Kimberley Walsh) along the way, before returning to his real age and his home. It’s a fairly slight tale, and the message, such as it is, is sentimental stuff – hang on to your childhood, don’t grow up too fast, and bring the honesty and playfulness of childhood into your adult life. Grown-ups get a pretty bad press in this fable all in all; the apogee of this being the dreadful yuppie dinner party in act two, in which, inexplicably, the supporting men appear to be dressed as versions of Alan Partridge. Sophisticated it isn’t; that quality being distinctly off-message it would appear.
The overall look of the show is disappointing, and the decision to use huge video screens as the centre piece of each scene is a mistake. It distracts from and deadens the action, and also, importantly, takes away from any attempt at intimacy. We are always at a big stadium gig, even in the show’s more tender moments, which serves them badly. The lighting doesn’t help either. All of which underlines the question continually in mind – ‘Why is this a musical?’. It feels like a musical by numbers because that’s exactly what it is. A traditional musical structure has been superimposed on a film narrative. And it doesn’t work. The book and score are entirely forgettable; the rhymes from a Hallmark card and devoid of wit or charm. The only moments to draw widespread audience laughter are in the spoken dialogue. Not a good sign.
The principals are well-cast and work hard. Jay McGuiness perfectly embodies the child-in-man Josh; Kimberley Walsh softens beautifully from power-dressed executive to the girl looking for love she so clearly is, and Matthew Kelly gives a tremendous turn as Macmillan. Wendi Peters is a consummate professional and lends performance oomph to a pretty scant role, but, as with the kids in the cast, she is of the strident MT singing style, which arguably runs counter to emotional depth. Jobe Hart did, however, stand out as Billy last night and most certainly has a musical theatre future. It’s a shame that all this professionalism serves such an underwhelming show.
Finally, it is more than disappointing to see an all-white adult chorus in a West End musical in 2019 (representing the working population of NEW YORK!), as it is to see the only transvestite/transexual character equated with the rotten underbelly of the city. Theatre at this level has no excuse not to do better.