Review – On the 20th Century, Union Theatre

Thursday 16 December 2010

“You must be really old then” was the not-really-astonished-enough reaction when Phil let slip that he saw the original London production of On The 20th Century.

To be fair, it was only way back in 1980, two years after its début on The Broadway. To the Whingers that makes it s a modern musical as distinct from something like Guys and Dolls which is an old musical although funnily enough that was also 32 years old when Phil first saw it.

Ah time! How it speeds up as you get older. The theory that it’s due to a year being a smaller percentage of your life as time passes makes perfect sense to Phil. He’s already decided to leave this year’s Christmas decorations up for 2011 as there seems little point taking them down.

And the senior (even from Phil’s perspective) gentleman sitting behind the Whingers at the Union Theatre who had seen the original Broadway production, clearly remembered it as though it was yesterday. He was singing along throughout the show. Whatever happened to class? Even age doesn’t guarantee it.

OT20thC‘s music comes from Cy Coleman who wrote the music for Sweet Charity. The book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote the story and screenplay for Singing in the Rain, the greatest movie musical ever. They also wrote On The Town (and Bells Are Ringing, also recently revived at the Union). The show is based on Howard Hawks’ 1934 screwball comedy 20th Century which in turn was based on a play by the peerless Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  All of which may have conspired to set our expectations a little too high.

But as madcap farces go with plenty of running in and out of various salons on board the glamorous Twentieth Century Limited train between Chicago and New York, Ryan McBryde‘s direction provides enough fun for the endeavour not to run out of steam.

Theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffee (Howard Samuels) has had a series of flops and is desperate to sign his ex-lover and protégé and now movie star Lily (“Crunch me, crunch me!”) Garland (Rebecca Vere) who will be boarding the train en route. Is she too famous to go back to the theatre? Call Number 13*! Oh, and everyone on board from conductor to doctor has a play they’ve written and want Oscar to produce. Plus there’s a wealthy religious nut on board (complete with the wonderfully un-reconstructed “She’s A Nut”) Letitia Primrose (the excellent musical theatre veteran Valda Aviks) who has the money to finance the deal…

Samuels and Aviks are terrific, but it’s Vere who stands out in “Veronique”, “Never”, “Our Private World” and “I’ve Got It All”. Heck, she stands out in every number she got her impressive nashers into. And apparently this is barely scratching at the surface of her talent: she can “do” Dolly Parton, Cilla Black, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Gracie Fields which means that she’s definitely getting an invitation to the next Number 50* party.

So You Think You Can Dance alumnus and Shoes survivor Drew McOnie has provided the peppy choreography and inventive groupings we now expect at the Union and the best on-stage-train-improvised-by-a-cast since Hello, Dolly! in Regent’s Park.

The train sounds are cleverly created using an umbrella, among other things, and if you’re not convinced by them the sound of real locos rumbling over the Union’s arches add even more verisimilitude.

Although none of the songs graduated to “standard” status they are quite good and interesting enough, if occasionally repetitive. “Sign Lily Sign” should be the theme tune for SPIT. Why didn’t the Royal Court think of reviving On the 20th Century?

Anyway, this was the first preview. We have cut the production some slack in the hope that the boiler has been stoked and sluggishness of the first half overcome. More worryingly, though, we did get a bit lost with regards to both time and place: neither the staging, the design nor the lighting succeeded in communicating that the flashback scene was a flashback or that we were no longer on a train.

But once it got up to speed and more Aristotelian with regard to time and place it all began to chug along nicely. There was oodles of energy from the probably-mostly-not-born-in-1980 cast and enough zip to provide a spare for a certain senior citizen’s mouth.


* After the show the Whingers were slightly incredulous to hear they’d been shoehorned in at number 50 on The Times “The Luvvie Power List: the 50 most powerful people in theatre”. Sonia Friedman is number 13.

We never expected to find ourselves underneath Kevin Spacey (22) or Dame Judi Dench (21) which doesn’t mean we ever expected to be on top of either of them. But we did find it surprisingly agreeable to be above all the critics. You won’t often hear us say this, but thank goodness Dame Maggie wasn’t on stage this year or we would have been shunted off the bottom.

The Union’s Sasha Regan didn’t quite make it onto the list but to finally get snapped with the Whingers must surely be more than adequate compensation.

After much thought we are forced to conclude that the compilers came up with the list after the newspaper’s (presumably highly successful) Christmas party. Anyway, whatever the reason, it’ll surely transform us into an even bigger pair of Number 27s** than we were before.

**27. Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary



6 Responses to “Review – On the 20th Century, Union Theatre”

  1. Boz Says:

    “Aristotelian”. Get you and your five dollar words.

    (Well deserved place on the list though.)

  2. sasha regan Says:

    Love the pic ….. Confused as to who the two men were !

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Wow, I wish I’d done as much research about the show as you did – I totally saw both “Singing in the Rain” and “screwball comedy” in it but didn’t realize O20thC’s bona fides in this area! I’m afraid Aviks was the highlight for me but then I didn’t get to hear the audience singalonga from my seat.

    And I’m very pleased with the hat tip you received for making blogging respectable – it’s a real sign of improvement in the attitudes out there. But then I’ve known I’m more likely to get a straight recommendation from you guys than Michael Coveney for ages. And your reviews are interesting even when I don’t wind up wanting to see the show. Frankly, the only other reviewer I just read for fun is Clement Crisp – it’s very good company to keep.

  4. Michael Holland Says:

    Sasha knows how to look good: get photographed with ugly people

  5. Sasha knows how to look good. Get photographed with ugly people.

  6. Paulinlondon Says:

    I think the senior gentlemen behind you (and beside me) was just having a senior moment… Although doesn’t yet qualify for winter heating allowance and a freedom pass…

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