The Black and White Ball marks the re-launch of the refurbished King’s Head, and one’s pleasure at the event – the uncomfortable seating has been replaced by a different sort of squash-up on narrow red banquettes - is slightly tempered by the weakness of the first offering. An orphan girl revisits an old ballroom in search of her dead stepfather.
Who killed the guy? The story unravels forward as Jay St John (Chris Ellis-Stanton) finds his feet as a writer in 1940s New York thanks to the promotion of a svelte literary lioness Suzanne (Katherine Kingsley) whom he marries but two-times with a drag queen called Ron (Mark McGee).
The characters are mere ciphers and the orphan girl Leah (Kaisa Hammerlund) a bland representation of her younger, precocious self (Lillie Bone on press night). There's no dramatic grit in the story, which ambles amiably from song to song, with a welcome push and a shove from two nightclub singers, Liza Pulman and Charles Shirvell.
One of the great strengths of the King’s Head is its suitability for cabaret, and the pleasures here reside in the unadorned singing voice, the musical accompaniment of Mark Bousie on piano with Joe Pettitt on double bass and Harold Fisher on drums, and the musical artistry of the actors.
Most of the songs come from the romantic Porter catalogue, ranging from the melodically audacious “All of You” and “Love for Sale” to the jauntier, jazzier “You’ve Got That Thing” and “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight.” Each song is a thing of wonder in itself, and the evening transported in short three-minute bursts before slipping back into banality.
Ellis-Stanton simply can’t make Jay interesting, but Katherine Kingsley gives a one-woman fashion show of bitchy elegance and ice cool blonde musical deportment. Mark McGee, too, is outstanding, letting rip first with “Give Him the Oo-La-La” and then with Pulman and a hilariously reluctant Charles Shirvell in the inevitable “Can-Can”.
Although the show is a bit more than another Cole Porter songbook, the trouble is the “bit more” is not enough, despite the attentions of a top-drawer production team led by director Matthew White, designer Charlie Gridlan, choreographer Kenn Oldfield and lighting designer Rick Fisher. King’s Head loyalists will enjoy the evening, but the musical theatre landscape remains unaltered.
- Michael Coveney