Posts Tagged ‘Bessie Carter’

This is the London premiere of an 84-year-old J B Priestly play, with his trademark wittiness and his usual foray into left-wing politics and morals – not the best of either, but certainly worthy of revival in this excellent production by Hugh Ross.

It’s set in the home of Lord Kettlewell, separated from his wife and by default his Oxford University daughter Pamela, trying to extricate himself from a relationship with Hilda Lancicourt. His daughter, now a communist, turns up straight from a period in the USSR, with new friend Comrade Staggles in tow. She turns out to be rather manipulative, much to the delight of lounge lizard family friend Chuffy who watches on gleefully. Before the play is through she’s fended off two men, bagged a third, despatched Hilda and reunited her parents. Lady Knightsbridge is an additional character who doesn’t really serve any purpose but is thoroughly entertaining, and of course there’s a butler and a maid who Comrade Staggles can encourage to rebel.

It’s actually quite densely plotted, though it’s a light and frothy concoction. That said, it made for a pleasant evening and a rewarding one if you ‘collect’ Priestly as I do (three still to see). Polly Sullivan’s design, incorporating the theatre back wall, is very clever and her period costumes are excellent. I thought Steven Blakeley was terrific as the earnest Staggles, and Bessie Carter’s professional stage debut as Pamela was hugely impressive. In an altogether fine cast, Richenda Carey’s cameo as Lady Knightsbridge shone through. 

It’s astonishing that it’s never had a proper revival or a London run. It’s not a great play, but it’s an interesting period piece by an important 20th Century British playwright and this production fully justifies the decision to let us see it at last.

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The oddest thing about this 1978 Broadway show is its sub-operetta score by Cy (Sweet Charity / Barnum / City of Angels) Coleman. Oh, and the fact it takes place almost entirely on a train. This is my fourth production and the second at GSMD. I rather like it.

The score somehow suits a story about theatre folk. Producer Oscar Jaffee has had a series of flops and he’s on the run from those involved in the last one in Chicago, which closed mid-performance when the last audience member walked out, on the train named the 20th Century bound for New York. He hears that former star of stage, now star of screen, Lily Garland, is going to board the train. An idea for a new show about Mary Magdalene comes to him and a rich religious businesswoman, Letitia Peabody Primrose, falls into his lap and becomes his backer. He then seeks to bag Lily as his leading lady. With a book and lyrics by musical comedy masters Betty Comden & Adolph Green, there’s a lot of fun to be had, particularly in the second half scenes getting the investment and contracting Lily, plus a delightfully politically incorrect song called She’s A Nut and a running joke about everyone writing a play.

Adam Wiltshire’s set and costumes wouldn’t look out of place on a West End stage – two big gilt proscenium arches and a superb period train carriage – and where else would you get a full orchestra of 35 and a cast of 30 these days! There’s excellent choreography by Bill Deamer, especially in the Act II Mayfair party scene. The musical standards under MD Dan Jackson are high, and whereas last time GSMD staged it many of the cast struggled to play older, that is absolutely not the case here. Bessie Carter was particularly good as Letitia and Michael Levi Harris & Carl Stone a terrific double-act as Oscar’s sidekicks. I very much liked Claudia Jolly ‘s Lily and Josh Dylan provided a great cameo as her new love Bruce Granit. The chorus numbers showed off the vocal and dancing talents of a fine ensemble.

It’s another one of those shows where the second half is sharper than the first, and you can see why the original production never made it across the pond like Coleman’s other shows, but Martin Connor’s revival is a great introduction for anyone who hasn’t seen it, or a fresh look for musical theatre buffs like me who can’t get enough of it. 

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