Wednesday, 1 July 2015

22 June, 2015 A Damsel in Distress at Chichester Festival Theatre ***


I'm not sure that it is strictly kosher to call this (as CFT has done) a "new musical". After all PG Wodehouse screen-wrote the 1937 movie of the same name which starred Fred Astaire and Gracie Allen, and the Gershwin score re-appears here, almost in its entirety. No matter. The provenance of this work is of purely academic interest given that it can be best described as glass of weak, warm lager with far too much froth. 

Wodehouse was heavily involved as a writer and lyricist in the musical theatre of the twenties and thirties. I have yet to acquire any sort of taste for his humour and, although there are perfectly sane people who go ape over the goings on at Blandings, and laugh uproariously at the exploits of Gussy Finknottle and the like, I do not feel as if I am in a minority. Certainly the plot and the characters for this piece of nonsense come straight out of the Blandings pattern-book - an English Lord with a penchant for pigs (Nicholas Farrel), his callow daughter (Summer Strallen), a resourceful and sagacious butler (Desmond Barrit) a castle complete with turret and secret passage and some American showbiz types (including Richard Fleeshman as George Bevan) in thrall to the English aristocracy.

Speaking of Americans, the creative team for this show has a distinctly Broadway flavour probably because it is directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford who seems to have carved out a niche for himself as the go-to award ceremony choreographer. With the help of his team of associates and assistants he brings plenty of that zany oddball dancing to this production (a number called Fidgety Feet is highly original).  

Indeed one cannot fault the production values. The music under David Chase and Alan Williams is highly professional, Christopher Oram's set makes ingenious use of the two revolves in the newly refurbished theatre, and the acting, singing and hoofing is all up to standard. But this doesn't disguise the fact that Damsel in Distress is a very weak show, and following hard on the heels of revivals of Anything Goes and Top Hat suffers badly by comparison.

I went because we were promised in the publicity an extensive trawl through the Gershwin back catalogue. In the event the musical numbers are mostly from the original show and are instantly forgettable. We did, however, get Nice Work If You Can Get It and a Foggy Day. 

For me, there was one stand-out performance. Sally Ann Triplett managed to invest the character of Billie Dore with some real substance. The fact that she can list Roxy Hart in Chicago and Berta in Acorn Antiques in her extensive CV shows what a real trouper she is. She didn't disappoint.

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