It’s potty time for the Whingers.
In the whiffy wake of The Captain of Köpenick and its distinctive USP (a woman performing her number twos into a chamberpot live on the Olivier stage) we are now granted another form of potty: madness.
Dear World, falls between two, err, stools with its lunacy. On the one hand there is the cuckoo Countess Aurelia (AKA Jean Giraudoux‘s The Madwoman of Chaillot) and on the other the brave decision to stage Jerry Herman‘s decidedly barmy 1969 “musical fable” (original book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, new version by David Thompson) at all. This is a show that flopped badly on Broadway despite a Tony Award-winning turn from Angela Lansbury.
Nonetheless, at the Charing Cross theatre “four legends unite to create theatrical history” apparently. The ‘legends’ in question are Mr (Dolly!) Herman, Betty (Cats) Buckley (The Countess), Gillian (Cats) Lynne (director and choreographer) and (presuably, based on the size of his name on the poster) Paul (Hair, Cats) Nicholas discharging (and happily continuing our theme) his Sewerman.
With all due disrespect to those involved, the value of the word ‘legend’ is surely being brought into disrepute.
The world of Dear World is the post-war Paris of 1945 – apart from a prologue set in 1943, which quite frankly the Whingers didn’t follow fully. And a very French world it is too. The Frenchness is unashamedly and knowingly laid on avec une truelle: we have a bistro, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, an accordion player, berets, a waitress dressed in the colours of the tricolour and even a man (Ayman Safiah) rendered mute by the prologue (we were rendered pretty speechless by the prologue too) who ‘speaks’ through the art of mime. It’s all so “ooh la la” it make Les Misérables look decidedly Germanic.
Unless you are The Boy With Tape On His Face, there’s nothing like a bit of mime to get the Whingers’ combined dander up and while we’re pursing our lips disdainfully, the production also features a park bench. The portents were not promising. What next? A cascade of red, white and blue balloons? And why they hadn’t gone the whole hog and fitted a string of onions in somewhere is a mystery.
Anyway, this cartoon vision of Paris sits atop a large oil field which is to be plundered by rich businessmen (Ms Lynne’s husband, Peter Land is one of them) with no compunction about blowing the city up with an Inspector Clouseauish “beumb” to make Paris Texas and themselves even richer in the process. The four evil capitalists sing “Just A Little Bit More” which it turns out is nothing to do with Gina G’s iconic pop classic “Ooh Aah… Just a Little Bit“. Pity.
The Countess’ ‘madness’ is peppered with touches of absurd logic; she’s a fixer, and sets out to foil the dastardly plot with a bit of Dolly Levi-ish romance brokering along the way. So just exactly how mad is she?
Despite having a fairly unmemorable score – it’s hard to believe it’s from the creator of Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles – there’s a certain bonkers charm to much of the enterprise. We would hesitate to say the whole thing really is as mad as a box of frogs, lest (thank you Mr Pinter) we are accused of cultural insensitivity again.
It’s no secret that the WEW love dotty broads and here we were spoiled with three of them, each pottering pottily in costumes suggesting Miss Havisham has discovered technicolor, before one appears in full Mrs Meers drag in Act 2. Rebecca Lock and Annabel Leventon play the Countess’ hilariously eccentric friends; their capers with an imaginary dog providing many of the biggest laughs. Yes, more mime! Every show should consider featuring an imaginary dog.
But if it all sounds as if we’re here to gawp at lunatics in the asylum, the show counters that by suggesting that the real madness is corporate greed.
Buckley (who was in both the film Carrie and the infamous musical based on it) is quite splendid; wistful, funny and thoroughly watchable throughout and it’s hardly surprising she occasionally plays some of it with a breaking-the-fourth-wall twinkle, not least when she works the curtain call like the fully-fledged trouper she clearly is – which incidentally seems to last even longer than The BodyGuard‘s extended finale.
The large cast and staging (set Matt Kinley, costumes by Tony Award-winner Ann Hould-Ward and lighting by Olivier Award-winner Mike Robertson) suggests a lavishness beyond the resources of a theatre this size. This was only the second preview and if there’s a problem it’s not in this production it’s in the peculiar piece itself. When shows take this long to receive a British premiere there’s usually a good reason.
Definitely one for those who collect musical curiosities, yet still worth seeing for Madames Buckley, Leventon and Lock.
But perhaps the most remarkable things is Gillian Lynne herself. It may seem ungallant to talk about a her age but we can’t help ourselves; she’ll turn 87 on 20 Feb. Happy birthday to her. Whatever it is she’s on, can we have some too?