Review – Love Story, Duchess Theatre

Tuesday 14 December 2010

There is a park bench on the poster! Was producer Michael Ball taunting Phil or perhaps even trying to keep the Whingers away from Love Story at the Duchess Theatre? And if so why?

All the poster needed was a couple of balloons tied to the bench for both of Phil’s theatrical bêtes noires to come together in one horrendous event (as was cathartically immortalised in song at Showstopper! the Improvised Musical).

“Think they’ll have balloons?” moithered Phil to Andrew, disconsolately, just before the curtain went up.

And bizarrely, yes, there were: three of them, red ones filled with helium but mercifully used not symbolically – merely as icons and indexes*, which is actually permissible within Phil’s Balloon Code.

There were more thrills to come: a cooking scene was perfect for Phil’s long-gestating food-on-stage thesis. What must be the fastest cooking pasta is boiled and eaten on stage. Onions are chopped, mushrooms tossed around willy-nilly plus a can of tomatoes which is opened live on stage plus garlic bulb-juggling and all this is all performed whilst delivering a song which rhymes “gnocchi” with “rocky” (which shouldn’t really be a surprising rhyme, but is) and includes the lyric “And life is molte bene when your pasta’s cooked with penne” which will be reprised by the Whingers every time they knock up an Italian.

Love Story the musical is based on Erich Segal‘s book which was famously turned into a hit 1970 film and which made stars of Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. It arrives from an acclaimed run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, although it has been considerably less acclaimed since it arrived in London for some reason. Anyhow, too late for Michael Ball who apparently fell in love with the show at Chichester and came on board as one of the producers

It’s not hard to see why he fell for it. On paper Cancer – The Musical! may not sound like a show with legs which is probably why it is actually called Love Story. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film we’re not spoiling anything here by saying it’s a shamelessly romantic story about a rich, sporty jock Oliver Barrett IV (Michael Xavier) and a poorer music student Jenny Cavilleri (Emma Williams) who dies at the end of Leukaemia which is a kind of cancer but the kind that you can put in a musical without actually using the word cancer. And – judging from her demise – it seems that Leukaemia just makes you a bit tired for a few months and then you fall asleep forever. It’s a very clean, quiet and dignified way to go – definitely one to opt for if you get the choice.

Now it must be said that the Whingers aren’t that keen on disease drama. It’s a bit near the knuckle as both have whiled away many hours reading the Bird Flu (and in Phil’s case, Spanish Flu) posters on the walls of the their respective GPs while waiting for appointments of one kind or another. Only the other day, Phil was getting a stern talking to from his doctor who insisted that Phil did NOT have hypochondria and that it was actually all just in his mind. Andrew, meanwhile, was receiving similarly distressing news at his local surgery – apparently he does NOT have body dysmorphic disorder – he is genuinely ugly.

And then there was the elephant in the room – Phil was experiencing tummy problems which he feared would mean he would have to use a toilet at some point in the evening. Now if one has to undergo this kind of trauma (which is what shared toilet seats are to Phil) then one can’t do much better than Nica Burns’s refurbished Duchess toilets so Phil was aware that he must be grateful for small mercies – it could so easily have been an evening at the Union Theatre. Which it will be tonight.

Anyway, sorry to talk about such unpleasant things. Let’s return to the more palatable topic of Leukaemia.

It transpires that Love Story is a rather charming and elegant chamber piece – the orchestra consists of white grand piano and a string quintet, all on white chairs in front of a white set with white windows. All it needed was some billowing white curtains and it could have been an 80s pop video or a feminine hygiene commercial. But if it was striving a little too hard to be classy it didn’t matter: the orchestrations felt fresh and light and the singers weren’t competing with it, which made a nice change.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh keeps the whole thing bouncing along, helping it to miraculously build to its climax without ever slipping into mawkishness. Never has an audience been so quiet at the end of a show. Even the person who had been texting in the second row and the woman behind the Whingers who had been rustling in her handbag were silenced. And Phil insists that he wasn’t “doing a Shenton” but merely had something in his eye. It was a tissue.

The music and lyrics (Howard Goodall, Stephen Clark) may not be remarkable but they serve the piece well enough. The interpolation into a new song of Francis Lai’s Oscar winning theme from the film “Where Do I Begin?” was deligthful.

The leads have a natural chemistry between them and carry the show getting most of the songs. Peter Polycarpou makes a good impression as Jenny’s father while Williams’ feisty Jenny keeps things just the right side of slushy sentiment.

The whole thing is over in 90 minutes with no interval.

Really rather enjoyable.


* Semiotics may have progressed since philosopher Charles S. Peirce identified these three kinds of signs in the late 19th century.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

15 Responses to “Review – Love Story, Duchess Theatre”

  1. Chris Says:

    A classy,beautifully sung show. Well worth a visit.

  2. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Ah, like a number of reviewers you make the high-culturist assumption that the book must have come first. In fact, the screenplay preceded it*, and the studio asked Segal to novelise that in order to cash in.

    And “indices”.

    *although there was a skimpy, serialised version in Women’s Home Journal before even that.

  3. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Blame the programme notes by Ned Temko..
    “The success he (Segal) earned from his first novel and its Hollywood film adaptation..’

  4. jmc Says:

    I find it almost impossible to believe that this can be good, but I’ll take the Whingers’ word as I haven’t seen it myself. Does the musical retain the film couple’s constant swearing and arguing that goes on between the couple before their rows are becalmed by the onslaught of The Big C?

    On another note, it’s hard to believe that any of the songs are as good as the splendid “Where Do I Begin” number which Andy Williams sang, based on the theme to the original movie. The Whingers might remember that Williams soon after sang a song based on the theme to another 70s romantic drama, Last Tango in Paris. I hope that Mr Goodall or some other enterprising composer decides to turn that into a stage musical. Whoever does it, they are sure of a sponsorship deal from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

  5. John Says:

    Believe it this is a lovely production.

  6. Ali67 Says:

    This is the best show I’ve seen all year. Beautiful… Heartbreaking.. It HAS to find an audience in London.. Shame the poster is do bad though..

    It deserves to win best new musical at the Oliviers..

  7. sandown Says:

    I remember Erich Segal at Yale. While he was there, he had great prestige as a wealthy and successful Hollywood script-writer. When he was in Hollywood, he was revered as a high-minded and unworldly Ivy League professor.

    It pays not to specialise.

  8. […] see a play about a love affair terminated by cancer in the middle of the January doldrums, despite a quite positive review by the West End Whingers. Salad Days (“the musical about the magical piano that makes people dance and sing!”) […]

  9. Lizzie Davis Says:

    Was invited to review this on my blog a few days ago – think it’s struggling to get the punters in. I’m afraid I could sort of see why…Meh is the word.

  10. webcowgirl Says:

    Dammit, your review is so much funnier than mine, which is depressing as I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as you did. I was mawked out and wanted to slap the male lead. However, PHIL you have now made me COMPLETELY OVERAWARE of food being served on stage! That was all I could think about during the pasta scene!

  11. Ann Illingworth Says:

    the most beautiful show i have seen in a very long time Emma & Michael are just wonderful together, what amazing voices. I wept buckets

  12. P Oliver Says:

    I saw this in Chichester and was so amazed I’ve been to see it twice in the West End. It ought to be mawkish and it isn’t. Just an amazing show, such a talented cast. It so deserved a longer run. Last night all leads were crying so I guess they had had some bad news. Theatre staff said it would probably go on tour after it ends on 26/2 but maybe not. Beautiful music, beautifully sung and delicate acting. Go see it before it ends.

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