Call Me Madam (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Posted: September 15, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon

Music and lyrics: Irving Berlin

Book: Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse

Director: Mark Giesser

⭐️⭐️

The Summer of 2021 has seen glorious revivals of Broadway musicals from the 1930s and 40s in London and Chichester; now it is time to dip into the 50s, albeit on a much smaller pub theatre scale. Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in 1950 and served as a star vehicle for the legendary Ethel Merman, running for a respectable couple of years.

The show, a frivolous musical comedy, tells the story of Sally Adams, a Washington socialite who is dispatched by the Truman administration to become United States Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. Her direct, unconventional approach ruffles feathers and disrupts the political status quo, while she also forms an unlikely romantic attachment with the soon-to-be Lichtenburg Prime Minister, Cosmo Constantine.

As Sally, the undiplomatic diplomat, Rosemary Ash is brash and vulgar, storming every scene in much the same manner as we imagine Merman would have done. Constantine, suave and slippery, is played by Richard Gibson, previously best known as Herr Flick in the television sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo. He must be happy that there is no need for him to master a new accent. 

Daniel Breakwell as the American aide Kenneth Gibson and Beth Burrows as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg make affecting sweethearts and bring a touch of youth to proceedings, much needed as they are supported by what could possibly be one of the oldest chorus lines in musical theatre history.

Aimee Leigh’s choreography shows little imagination and it rarely  shakes off the flavour of a Derby and Joan tea dance. Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with a geriatric musical. Why should nimble young things have a monopoly on flinging themselves around the stage? However, this production’s problem lies not so much with the company; more it is the show itself that creaks.

The book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse feels tired and stilted and the passing of seven decades has not been kind to the many “topical” jokes. The most enduring of Berlin’s songs have proved to be It’s a Lovely Day Today and You’re Just in Love, both duets, but, sadly, many of the rest serve as a reminder that even the greatest can sometimes have a bad day at the piano.

Director Mark Giesser’s production seems to acknowledge the show’s problems and then accentuate them, but it does not go far enough in the direction of tongue-in-cheek to enter “so bad it’s good” territory, which is, perhaps, a pity. The spark of invention needed to jolt the show into forming a connection with a 21st Century audience never materialises. Call Me Madam is a show which many musical theatre enthusiasts will have heard of, but not seen; they should grab this chance, because it could be a very long time before it comes round again.

Performance date: 14 September 2021

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