Things were not shaping up too well in 2015.
First Phil was going to hand out the much coveted Whingie Awards for 2014, then on reflection realised his short list was very short indeed (or he was just feeling too lazy). So apologies to Imelda Staunton, Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III, My Night With Reg, Forbidden Broadway and Assassins. You’d all have featured somewhere, but just think how much more coveted our gongs will be if it isn’t an annual event.
Then on Monday Phil turned up for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown-The Musical only to be told it was cancelled due to the indisposition of 3 of the leads. Phil adopted on a glass half-full air saying “At least we can go home and watch Broadchurch” at which point two other glass half-full patrons turned round interjecting “That’s exactly what we said too”. Anyhoo, the Playhouse staff were so nice and apologetic about it Phil didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t like the days of Ethel Merman (who never missed a show) as they were all far to young to know who the hell he was talking about it.
The next day, Phil was due to interview Rob Marshall and Marc Platt, director and producer respectively of Into the Woods, but this was cancelled too. Phil had previously puffed himself up at this inexplicable invitation and prepared, with due diligence, his list of probing questions, “Did they know that James Corden was probably only in the film due to the Whingers, since we were the first to rave about him in One Man, Two Guvnors, leading to its West End and Broadway transfers, Corden’s Tony Award and his international recognition?” and “Why wasn’t Meryl Streep given a big prosthetic hooter for her witch?” and “How much wine was downed at the film’s wrap party?” Sadly we will never know.
So what chance for Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour? Andrew (who dragged himself
up out of the house for this one) was anticipating a third cancellation.
On top of all this Phil arrived at the Playhouse in a bit of a tizz, as on the way to the Finborough Theatre a cash machine had decided to eat his card, so arrived virtually penniless and forced to borrow wine money from Andrew.
Anhoo, things were looking up, Jerry Herman‘s 1979 musical (adapted by S. N. Behrman from Franz Werfel’s Jacobowsky and The Colonel) features nuns concealing people from Nazis. Sound at all familiar? What could possibly go wrong?
1940, Jacobowsky (Alastair Brookshaw) is an optimistic Polish Jewish intellectual, understandably trying to avoid the Nazis, the Polish colonel (Nic Kyle) is a petulant anti-semite desperate to get to rescue his French girlfriend Marianne (Zoë Doano) and get to England to deliver a secret message. Jacobowsky has a car but can’t drive, the colonel can drive but has no car. An uneasy chalk and cheese relationship takes to the road. Thelma and Louise they ain’t.
When they pick up Marianne, Jacobowsky falls for her adding to their tensions. But the perils ahead of them sit rather uneasily with the jauntiness of the telling. The secret message gets concealed in a hat box, which is exactly where we’d hide our secret messages if we possessed any (Secret messages that is. We have plenty of hat boxes).
The cramped stage is nicely served by an effective set (Phil Lindley) with things folding out of the walls and floor to suggest the location and Thom Southerland’s production produces other moments of inventiveness, especially in the big numbers, on a train, at a circus and at a Jewish wedding but although the score shows flashes of Herman’s genius there are no stonkingly memorable tunes of his Hello Dolly!, La Cage aux Folles or Mame.
Act 2 is much more enjoyable, possibly because it’s much shorter (the whole show is just over 2 hours including interval), kicking off with the delightful number “Mrs. Jacobowsky” performed by the winningly charming Brookshaw. It’s also astonishing how many times Herman successfully fits the word ‘Jacobowsky’ into his lyrics.
Some tension is created towards the end end of the evening, but with apparently only one Nazi (Blair Robertson) in the whole of France, an opportunity to shoot him suggests the course of history could have been changed with a single bullet. The economics of the fringe also dictate that the groom – rushing from his wedding to save his new wife – stops to pick up a table and carry it off into the wings. Sadly, this was only moment that really made us chuckle.
Still, top marks to Southerland for introducing us to a largely forgotten Herman musical. Southerland might just be the Torvill and Dean of the fringe. Collectors of rare musicals will be keen to collect it.
This production is the European première but it’s not difficult to understand why it’s taken 36 years to cross the Atlantic.