A Damsel in Distress**** (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Posted: June 21, 2015 in Theatre

damsel

Not content with providing London’s Savoy Theatre with two musicals in straight succession, Chichester could be pitching unashamedly for the hat trick with a show that is set partly in that very theatre. “Things are looking up” chirps Billie Dore (Sally Ann Triplett) performing the closing number of show-within-a-show Kitty in the City on the Savoy stage, before setting off for a weekend in a castle in Gloucestershire, along with the show’s writer George Bevan (Richard Fleeshman). This is a hybrid musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin transplanted onto a PG Wodehouse story, set in the 1920s, about a couple of Americans enjoying jolly frolics with the English aristocracy. 90 years ago, this sort of thing may have typified musical theatre, but, nowadays, the story looks pretty feeble. The book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson moves towards the very brink of pantomime and then, in a preposterous finale, walks several steps beyond it. This places a heavy burden on the songs and on director/choreographer Rob Ashford’s staging and, thankfully, both prove to be more than up to the challenge. Of course, the presence of names such as Isla blair, Desmond Barrit and Nicholas Farrell in supporting roles gave a pretty strong clue beforehand that the show would be well above the ordinary and they all shine, as do Fleeshman and Summer Strallen as the romantic leads and Richard Dempsey as a goofy toff, whilst Triplett is as much the star of the real show as of the one within it. The Gershwin songs fuse with the book, if not exactly seamlessly, then pretty well. Nice Work If You Can Get ItLove Walked In and A Foggy Day in London Town are probably the best known amongst them, but the real joy comes from hearing and seeing, fully staged, great songs that are much less familiar, all accompanied by Alan Williams’ orchestra, hidden somewhere above the stage. Christopher Cram’s designs give a fairy tale look to a production which bubbles along nicely up to the interval and then comes to life spectacularly from the start of a second half that would, on its own, make a journey to the south coast worthwhile, even from the Outer Hebrides or beyond. It starts with I Can’t Be Bothered Now, a rousing chorus routine led by Triplett. David Roberts and Chloe Hart, as cook and undercook, get the show’s loudest ovation for French Pastry Walk, which incorporates an Argentine Tango good enough to make even Craig Revel Horwood drool and, to round off a blissful half hour or so, the chorus returns to dazzle us with Fidgety Feet, a sparkling tap dance routine. They set the bar high for Anna Jane Casey, who will be showing us how to tap our troubles away on this same stage in just a few weeks’ time. In Chichester, things are definitely looking up.

Performance date: 20 June 2015

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