Despite a title that’s more than a mouthful, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying manages to keep its tongue firmly in its cheek, and, nearly half a century on, this satirical look at office life in the Fifties shows that nothing much has changed.
Joe McFadden (pictured) plays window washer J Pierrepont Finch with disarmingly innocent and candid insincerity. Following the instructions in the book of the title (voiced by Alistair McGowan), he enters the world of big business and quickly scales the corporate ladder to the position of Vice President, missing few opportunities to stab his colleagues in the back on the way. In keeping with this year’s Festival theme of “Con Art”, Ponty never actually lies, but cleverly manages to give everyone the impression that he’s charming, hardworking, and well connected.
Everyone, that is, except the Big Boss’ nephew Bud Frump, a not-very-bright mother’s boy in an inspired, comically athletic performance by David Langham, who keeps his lowly position in the firm purely by nepotism. As said boss, JB Biggley, James Bolam seems to thoroughly enjoy himself. No more so than when crooning “Love from a Heart of Gold” in an extravagantly over-sentimental manner with his mistress Hedy La Rue (Annette McLaughlin as a bottom-wiggling dumb blonde).
Francis O'Connor’s sets just get better and better. This one, in an Art Deco style, is as brilliantly inventive and stylish as ever, smoothly, swiftly and almost invisibly re-arranged by the actors between each scene. While never reaching the breathtaking heights he achieved for the chimneysweeps in Mary Poppins, Stephen Mear’s solid choreography is performed with gusto by the splendid ensemble to the accompaniment of the 12-piece orchestra. The spirited rendering of song and dance “Brotherhood of Man” ensures an uplifting finale.
Given that this show has music and lyrics by the legendary Frank Loesser, it’s surprising that the only familiar-sounding song is “I Believe in You”, sung by Ponty to his own reflection in the executive washroom mirror. Nevertheless, all of the numbers are extremely tuneful and very relevant to the show.
In terms of theatrical history, How to Succeed... may not have achieved the enduring success of Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (soon to be revived in the West End with a stellar cast led by Ewan McGregor), but Martin Duncan’s cracking production does well to help us rediscover the charms of this funny and enjoyable little gem. It certainly kicks Chichester’s 2005 festival season off on a high. And that’s no con.