Theatres from Land's End to John O'Groats are spending this year celebrating the centenary of master composer Richard Rodgers - and rightly so, as Rodgers was responsible for many of the most enduring and classic examples of stage and screen musicals. But while Rodgers' partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II forms the centrepiece of most people's memories of the great man, his first collaboration, with lyricist Lorenz Hart was just as prolific and memorable.
So it is good to see the New Wolsey Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse joining forces to produce arguably their finest work as their collective tribute to the man - this revival of Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey. And what a fine job they make of it, in an intimate reading with a small cast of high quality.
Director Phil Wilmott makes the very most of the close confines of the New Wolsey stage, with characters entering through the audience, the band occupying part of the balcony and with great flexibility offered by Nigel Hook's four-sided revolving set, which ensures the action continues seamlessly throughout.
And speaking of flexibility, each of the four band members have cameo roles on stage, in particular Georgina Field, who lays her woodwind instruments aside to become a wonderfully over-the-top journalist with a latent desire to be a stripper!
Pal Joey, based on a book by John O'Hara, tells the story of penniless hustler Joey (played by EasterEnder Des Coleman) who can talk himself into any job - and charm his way into any woman's bed. He leaves a string of broken hearts in his wake, not least the innocent Linda (Rae Baker), but meets his match in millionaire socialite Vera Simpson (Kathryn Evans), who probably has even more notches on her bedpost.
Coleman is an irresistible Joey while Evans' Vera is a real man-eater, all smouldering glances and sinuous body movements - this is a woman completely in command, both as character and actress. And she has the finest number to deliver in "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", which has become an absolute standard over the past 60 years.
Elsewhere, the "second rate" club dancers, led by Lindsey Danvers, are the epitome of kitsch, and I really enjoyed Michael Mawby's performance as club owner Mike. But such is Mawby's very distinctive physical presence on stage that it's somewhat distracting when he also turns up in the pivotal second-act role of would-be blackmailer Lowell. This is one place where paring down the company really doesn't pay off.
However, that is a minor gripe. Pal Joey makes for a delightful evening out, with some fine voices on show and some truly engaging performances.
- John Lawson (reviewed at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre)