Review – They’re Playing Our Song, Menier Chocolate Factory

Sunday 27 July 2008

Phil got very excited about when They’re Playing Our Song at the Menier Chocolate Factory was announced but got extremely frustrated when no-one else was quite so enthused about the revival of a musical whose main claim to fame is that it has the most annoying title song in the history of musicals (“They’re playing our song oh yes they’re playing our song and when they’re playing our song…” etc).

Anyway, it turned out the reason that no-one else was quite as excited as Phil was that he had read that Carrie Fisher was going to be in it whereas everyone else had read (correctly) that Connie Fisher was going to be in it.

It was not quite as funny as theatre blogger Russell’s admission that he ” impressed everyone at work with my culture and erudition saying that we were off to see yet another play by Brecht – and then of course realised that I had got “The Chalk Garden” mixed up with “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, so there was a bit of backtracking to do the next day at the water cooler.”

But funny nonetheless.

Anyway, They’re Playing Our Song is a 1979 musical with book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, and music by Marvin Hamlisch. It is supposedly based on the relationship between Hamlisch and Bayer Sager.

The cramped Saturday matinee was only the second preview of this revival so perhaps that partly excuses the lacklustre of the performance.

Alistair McGowan plays “wisecracking” Jewish New York composer Vernon Gersch in an hilarious 70s wig. Fisher plays kookie Jewish New York lyricist Sonia Walsk in an hilarious 70s wig. They are supported by three alter ego backing singers apiece – all wearing hilarious 70s wigs. You can imagine how hilarious this is for five seconds.

Just in case the audience was wondering whether the wisecracking dialogue was hilarious or not, both of them announce each gag for their benefit with a lot of New York Jewish waving of arms.

Unfortunately, this approach merely serves to highlight how hilarious Neil Simon’s wisecracking dialogue isn’t. For example:

She: “Did that come out wrong?”
He: “Only if you happened to hear it.”


She: “It’s just a suggestion.”
He: “Pearl Harbour was a suggestion!”

All the comedy 70s wigs in the world can’t compensate for the fact that this production is hopelessly miscast but at least the leads have the decency to look deeply uncomfortable.

And the excitement of the completely pointless set revolve only served to put the Whingers in mind of a wind-up gramophone which despite being frantically wound runs down just a few minutes later.

Fisher, of course, sings beautifully but this is really a play with pop songs and ballads and not a musical in any real sense. Neither Whinger could not name, much less hum, any of the songs.

Phil saw the original London production with Tom Conti and Gemma Craven one and a half times. The safety curtain got stuck at the interval the first time and he must have been enjoying it as he went back to see the whole show a week later. He remembered it as being funny, mainly due to the skill of the performers (Craven won an Olivier award). But the highlight was spotting comedy legend Dickie Henderson (left) in the audience and Telly Savalas‘ (right) bald head catching the conductor’s spotlight as he took his seat during the overture.

Unfortunately there is no curtain to get stuck at the Menier. Having made the huge mistake of returning after the interval (the second half doesn’t get any better), Phil was hoping the revolve would jam and the Whingers might be released from their torture.

The choreography would shame Second Generation TV dancing, the chemistry between the two leads is almost non existent. Phil stared along the line of grim faced punters, few of whom were laughing, as each gag fell flatter than the last. The Whingers’ seats were of course rubbish, (the Menier is still sticking to their absurd unreserved seating policy) having refused to join the queue for the auditorium which had formed over half an hour before the show in the furnace they call the bar.

So, stuck near the front on one of the far sides of the auditorium the band sounded muffled but afforded them a splendid view into the wings. If Andrew leant forward (which he is prone to doing as he struggles to keep awake) Phil couldn’t see much of the stage which proved the only relief.

Richard Mawbey‘s wigs, are as ever, excellent but the whole seventies send-up is – to put it kindly – misguided as the play is intended to be a love story, albeit an amusing one. Xanadu it ain’t.

13 Responses to “Review – They’re Playing Our Song, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. […] The leads (Connie Fisher, who’s name I found familiar for some reason, possibly the same as Phillip Whinger although perhaps I was thinking Connie Francies) and Alistair McGowan (no bells ringing there, […]

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Well, I apparently saw the “did they have chemistry” thing differently from you two, but the lack of hummable songs is a “take it outside and shoot it” failing for this show. Why in the hell did they ever want to revive it?

  3. Simone Says:

    HAHAHA The Carrie Fisher thing is hysterical!

  4. Graham Elliott Says:

    I think the reviewer was possibly sitting alongside my wife and I on the left side of the stage(facing)

    He overheard all our comments!

    Apologies to him if my snoring interupted the second half of the show.


    American Humour in one liners doesn’t work in the UK.

  5. Claire Says:

    I love you guys. I’m so glad I found your site. Keep going.

  6. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    I’m very excited about the new production of Carousel coming to the Savoy starring Leslie Grantham.

  7. Mark Says:

    I saw the original production in the USA where it appeared to star anyone related to Lucille Ball. I decided against seeing it again when it played at the Shaftesbury. (Since when is “Boy meets Girl” a plot?) I got very annoyed when people kept telling me how wonderful if was that Tom Conti spent the whole evening giving loveable looks of “I can’t do this. Why have they cast me?” Oh that was so funny, they all said…

  8. webcowgirl Says:

    To Graham: I’m American and this style of humor is not funny there, either. It’s only appropriate for sitcoms, where they have “laugh tracks” to indicate the writer was attempting to be funny … and failing.

    GOD Neil Simon NEVER AGAIN.

  9. […] it: West End Whingers, Web Cow Girl Kind of liked it: Paul in […]

  10. […] bloggers reviews: West End Whingers review Webcowgirl review The Londonist […]

  11. Miles Webber Says:

    Ok folks, a little unfair!

    I am jut back from the Menier, and enjoyed the show. I had seen it with Conti back in 1980 as a grumpy reluctant 11 year old, and have since had the songs parked in my nostalga itunes.

    Yes the Menier is terrible. Stupid seat policy, very uncomfy benches and £3 for a small bag of chocolate.

    As for the show. It is a ‘period’ show now, and if you take it as it was written, as a early stage version of any number of terrible US sit-coms, its a sweet few hours.

    Connie is far too ‘nice’ to be convincing as a flakey Jewish New Yorker (and I should know, as a member of the Tribe), and McGowan works hard, but I keep waiting for him to do his David Beckham impersenation (although i hear he was good in Cabaret as the MC, although again, having seen this on Broadway with Alan Cumming, I can not belive anyone can ever play this role as good as he).

    But they sing ok-she better than him, the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are fine, the music cheesy and fun and I likes the revolving set. I did spend all night trying to find the band, and then was wondering why the cast all pointed to the top right of the stage at the encore, but taken as it is, forget the wigs, bad accents, cheesy music, dated one-liners and invisible band, and it was fun, maybe just for nostalgic reasons, but I still cant go to sleep now that te bloody song is going around in my head….everybody shhh, shhh, shhh…

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