Review – Bells Are Ringing, Union Theatre

Saturday 2 October 2010

The art of whinging has been handed down through generations of Phil’s family courtesy of a matrilineage that, needless to say, ends abruptly and somewhat anti-climatically with Phil.

His mother, for example, never fails to moan on being put through to a call-centre, complaining she can’t understand what the people with “accents” are saying. Bells Are Ringing might just be the show for her.

Ella (Anna-Jane Casey) is an operator for “Susanswerphone” a telephone answering service for playwrights, actors, opera singers and the Duchess of Windsor among others.

Often adopting different identities by affecting silly voices to liven up her job, Ella’s downfall is her big heartedness which leads her into the lives of her clients – against her boss’s wishes –  in attempts to help them sort out their lives; she is the Dolly Levi of the switchboard.

Although Ella has only ever heard his voice, she is deeply attracted to playwright Jeff Moss (Gary Milner) who is suffering not only from writers’ block but also – and here the Whingers can empathise – indulging in the displacement activities of drinking and partying when he should be writing.

But is he  the man for Ella? Will her interfering attempts to sort out his messy life lead to true love?

Of course it will! BAR is a 1956 musical with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Jule Styne. But of course it’s not the outcome which matters. Sadly we can no longer say it’s the “journey” since Tony Blair rendered the word laughable, so let’s just say it’s the getting there.

And it gets there with some class. Jonathan Russell Productions (Google them if you are looking for information about Sachs-Gate)  have pulled off something of a casting coup by securing the not inconsiderably talented Anna-Jane Casey in the lead (in a role originated by Judy Holliday by the way).

The first thing that strikes you is that the staging in the Union is wide. Goodness knows what the view is like from the extremities, or what the smell from the gent’s loo is like if you sit on the far right of the auditorium. So dress towards the left as it’s also further from the band who, though excellent, occasionally drown out the singing. Phil picked up a distinct urinal whiff during the first act as the cast held the auditorium door open and it lingered in the air throughout the second. Who says show-business isn’t glamorous? Andrew of course could detect nothing. All is relative. The only thing getting up his nose was Phil.

The songs may not be the greatest ever written, but the cast’s terrific delivery almost makes you believe some of them are and the second act contains a couple of standards – “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over”. “Drop that Name” is hilariously delivered and a song increasingly close to the Whingers’ hearts.

Corinna Powlesland is an extremely likeable Sue and splendidly in period – the extensive costumes (Christopher Giles) belie any budgetary constraints. The chorus is excellent – everyone apart from the two leads is called upon to play a variety of characters and they do so with admirable insouciance. And we were relieved to see that poor Carl Au survived the indignity of playing the mime in The Fantasticks.

The Strallen factory has been working overtime to produce a new model – the Sasi Strallen. By our reckoning, the Strallometer now registers a whopping 3 currently appearing on London stages. They get everywhere. Will musicals soon be forced to deliver warnings “May contain traces of Strallen”?

Fresh out of drama school, Adam Rhys-Charles makes a good comedic impression as a dentist and would-be-songwriter and Casey, yet again, delivers a totally charming, winning performance making you wonder why she isn’t better known outside the world of musical theatre. You’ll leave wanting to take her home with you and not just because she could re-tile your bathroom.

Equally sublime is Alistair David’s sensational and witty choreography (the need for a wide stage quickly becomes evident) which combined with Paul Foster’s perky direction offers pleasing groupings, peppy movements and high kicks that are not so much in-yer-face, as likely to take your head off. This is better than much of the choreography you’ll see in the West End.

David scores too often to list, but “Hello, Hello There!” and “Mu Cha Cha” stand out. One of the routines involves people dancing with drinks in their hands, He could fast become a new WEW hero, although we remain in the dark regarding his grouting skills.

There are problems but few can be blamed on the production; indeed, the production is generally superior to the material: the act one songs are surprisingly anodyne given who wrote them, it’s too long and the sub-plots are beyond laboured. The letter box stage means that a lot of people don’t get a good view and as it’s unallocated seating… Well, you know.

But yet another triumph for the Union.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

8 Responses to “Review – Bells Are Ringing, Union Theatre”

  1. I LOVE you guys………your review made me wee my pants, especially the Strallen section.HILARIOUS!!!
    Thanks for saying lovely things, love your work, AJ x

  2. Margarita Says:

    I’d love to see the show but hate that theatre. I don’t expect it to become bigger – it is a railway arch – but cleaner would be encouraging. Smelly loos will certainly make me skip this show as the awfullness of attending ONCE UPON A TIME AT THE ADELPHI (for the theatre – I enjoyed the show) is slow to fade. Let’s hope for a transfer.

  3. echelons Says:

    A great, great production by Jonathan Russell. Good review, too by the boys. Don’t be mean to the Union Theatre – they do such wonderful stuff. Yes, we need to start a toilet renovation fundraiser!

  4. webcowgirl Says:

    God I enjoyed this show. It was really so much better than most of what the West End is cranking out. Thank God for the Union!

  5. Choreokino Says:

    Traces of Strallen – ‘Fraid 4 is all we could manage before running out of both steam and time – however, I do hope you continue to enjoy them for many years.

    The Strallen Father

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