Someone must have a sense of humour to put on this show just outside the boundaries of the City of London, where quite a few people over the years have made a pile for themselves, seemingly without doing very much to earn it. However, if you’re planning to pick up a few tips here before continuing west, be warned that everything you’ll see is at least half a century out of date.
The big point of interest in revisiting this 1961 award winning Broadway hit is the involvement as composer and lyricist of Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, but the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, from an original by Shepherd Mead, now feels pretty ropey. Following the recent revival of Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse, we now pay a second musical visit to a New York office block in the early 1960s and, in terms of meeting the needs of the show, the songs here are arguably at least as good.
The plot follows ambitious young window cleaner J Pierrepont Finch (Marc Pickering) as he gets hold of a self-help manual with the show’s title and sidles his way upwards through the ranks of a New York company. Although not specified, it is a fair guess that the first tip in the manual could be “be born a man”, as the role of women in this company is laughably archaic. While the guys get all the plum jobs, the gals bide their time as secretaries or receptionists and dream of being whisked away to live happily ever after in New Rochelle, where they can cook, clean and tend for their brood. As inspiration for 21st Century women, this is a show that can take its place alongside The Taming of the Shrew, but, back in 1961, sweet secretary Rosemary (Hannah Grover) gets her tentacles stuck into Finch with exactly those dreams in her mind.
The satire lacks bite, the comedy is predictable and dated, but then there are the songs. Even if this show is lesser Loesser, the punchy lyrics and catchy show tunes are still worth hearing as they build up to two outstanding numbers in a second half that is immeasurably better than the first. Pickering gazes into a washroom mirror, singing I Believe in You, with the the chorus behind the urinals and then he moves up to the board room to lead the company on Brotherhood of Man. Rising to the quality of this material, director Benji Sperring’s production now finds the essential ingredient of Broadway pzazz that it had lacked earlier, Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets a kick in its steps and Ben Ferguson’s fresh orchestrations shine.
Pickering shows all the guile of a backstabbing career ladder climber, but often forgets to add the charm that would make his antics credible. His rival, the boss’s nephew Bud Frump is made creepily nasty by Daniel Graham, Andrew C Wadsworth shows dithering authority as the boss himself, JB Biggley, and Lizzi Hills has great fun as Hedy La Rue, his tarty bit on the side who does not do shorthand but can type at the phenomenal rate of 10 words a minute. Mike Lees’ office set in front of sliding elevator doors is well used and his period costumes, particularly the garish ladies’ dresses, are a delight. If the production does not quite succeed in making this a show for 2017, it is not for want of trying.
.Performance date: 15 April 2017