Ruthless the Musical
Reviewed – 28th March 2018
“tries far too hard to be irreverent”
Making its West End debut, twenty-five years after it opened Off-Broadway, “Ruthless! The Musical” tells the story of eight-year-old Tina Denmark who will do anything to play the lead in her school play. The publicity material describes it as an all-female camp killer cult classic. It doesn’t take long to realise that the description is as tongue in cheek as the show itself. It may have achieved cult status across the pond, but ‘classic’ is stretching the gag too far. And it’s not even all-female with one of the characters being a man in drag.
What it is, though, is an audacious, over-the-top spoof of the dark side of ‘showbiz’; the world of pushy stage-mothers and precocious youths desperate for stardom, unscrupulous agents and sadistic critics. There is an almost surreal quality to its silliness that begs the audience to go along with it. It is not easy to go with the flow, however, as it tries far too hard to be irreverent.
The cast do give it their all in some robust performances, and they all embrace the fact that they are depicting caricatures rather than characters. This knowing wink to the audience brings us on their side but we can only support this allegiance so far. All too soon the fun is spoilt by the relentlessly force-fed humour. The tone remains on one level throughout and only when glimpses of the actors’ own expression shows through do we get another dimension. Tracie Bennett brings a breath of fresh air as the drunken theatre critic with the poison pen, Jason Gardiner is sinisterly camp as the unscrupulous agent and Kim Maresca gives a plausible portrayal of the pushy mother to Anya Evans’ eight-year-old wannabe. In fact it is Evans who seems to get the satire the most.
Joel Paley’s lyrics are sometimes witty, but Marvin Laird’s score lacks variation. Again, there are a couple of exceptions that stand out; the ensemble title tune, ‘Ruthless’, but most notably Kim Maresca’s solo number, the quite tender ‘It Will Never Be That Way Again’ which is a welcome departure from the normally shouty delivery of the other numbers.
The programme notes suggest that this revival be perceived within the modern concept of ‘Time’s Up’, and asks how the presentation of powerful women might change once women are “calling the shots”. A touch vainglorious, but maybe that’s ironic too, given the trigger-happy nature of the heroine. Unlike her, though, this show misses the target. Morgan Large’s fabulous set and costume create the right atmosphere, with the expectation that we’re in for a real party. But the overall feeling is one of being cornered at that party by the over enthusiastic host. Or rather hostess.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Alastair Muir
Ruthless the Musical
Arts Theatre until 23rd June