Promises Promises (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 18, 2017 in Theatre



Before starting to review Promises Promises, I have to state a personal interest. The show is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar winning film The Apartment and, although I do not claim it to be the greatest film of all time, it is my own favourite. It gave birth to lifelong loves of cinema and the city of New York which remain undiminished. It is the perfect New Year’s Eve movie and, seeing it again now, the striking thing is that so little has changed in more than half a century. Yes some specific details of office life are different, but the film’s caustic account of it remains as relevant as back in the 60s and, of course, human nature, the dark and romantic sides of it, is as it ever was.

In this musical version, the time is 1962 and Fran Kubilik. an elevator operator in the film, has become a waitress, but Neil Simon’s book is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay by Wilder and IAL Diamond. He adds plenty of his own brand of New York humour while retaining the essential bitter-sweet tone of the source material and there are times when this production is very, very funny, aided by delicious cameos from John Guerraso and Alex Young. In fact it would be fair to say that this is a musical comedy in which the comedy comes out on top.

The songs are provided by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, the team responsible for countless classics of the 60s era, but there is a feeling that they knew the way to San Jose better than the way to Broadway. The show includes one of their greatest, A House is Not a Home, Daisy Maywood’s tearful rendition breaking hearts, and also one of their best known, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, touchingly duetted by Maywood and Gabriel Vick to the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Otherwise, the songs are disappointingly ordinary, but, more crucially, they often feel like intrusions, hindering the show’s progress when they need to be propelling it.

Bronagh Lagan’s no-frills production suits the thrust stage and Cressida Carré’s choreography is fun, particularly when four overweight, lusty executives form an unlikely chorus line. Paul Robinson is strikingly sleazy as the boss Sheldrake, but it is the two lead performances that elevate this production and make it memorable. Vick takes on the role created by Jack Lemon, CC Baxter the ambitious, put-upon office junior who climbs the career ladder by lending out the key to his apartment to his seniors and their mistresses. He catches the essence of Lemon’s performance but also brings his own distinctive touches. As Fran, the object of both Sheldrake and Baxter’s affections, Maywood bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Shirley MacLaine – the tomboy hairstyle, the cheeky grin, the voice – and, at times it feels as if the only difference is that we never see her in black and white. Together, the pair generate a wonderful comic chemistry and, once they begin to cast their spell, reservations about the show itself quickly melt away.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

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