Gay’s the Word** (Jermyn Street Theatre, 8 February 2013)

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Ivor Novello remains an iconic name in British theatre but, unlike contemporaries such as Coward and Rattigan, his works are largely unknown to modern audiences. This production gives clear clues both as to how he gained his stature and as to why his works are now hardly ever staged. To avoid confusion with modern connotations, the *Gay* of the title is Gay Daventry, a fading musical theatre star who founds a school of dramatic arts. There is no more plot worth recounting. Beginning with the positive, the tunes are varied and melodic, the lyrics are sharp and witty. This production has evolved from concert performances at the Finborough Theatre last year and it is easy to see why those performances were successful. They would have accentuated the songs and the book would have been relegated to secondary importance. However, in a full staging, the songs and the book matter equally and the show’s major weakness becomes more exposed. Musical theatre began to change forever after the opening of OKLAHOMA on Broadway in 1943, so this show was already on its way to becoming a relic when it was first staged in 1950, the year before Novello’s untimely death. In the second half of the 20th Century and beyond, musicals have become fully-developed works of theatre in their own right with integrated music and lyrics that serve to augment and drive forward the drama or comedy. Now a musical with a weak book is unlikely to go far, but in Novello’s days, the book of a show, this one included, was usually no more than a loose structure to which a collection of songs could be attached. The cast is 20-strong plus a pianist, not many fewer than a capacity audience in this tiny venue. Many musicals have benefitted enormously from being scaled down to be performed in a small venue, but this is not one of them. It is about musical theatre and, to have even a remote chance of working, it needed to be staged in a traditional theatre, where the big numbers could be made bigger, full dance routines could be added and the show’s critical weakness could be more easily overlooked. Here the spotlight is fixed firmly for long periods on the abysmal script and the performers can find no escape route. The company, led by Sophie-Louise Dann, Josh Little and Helena Blackman are all good singers and all likeable, but between musical numbers, they seem uncertain whether to play it straight or as a parody. In truth, neither option would succeed and their only salvation comes with the next song. The sad conclusion is that the main value of this revival is for it to serve as the equivalent of a museum exhibit, showing us what musical theatre used to be like. It may be a while before a Novello show is seen again.

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