If one is in search of a bout of sepia-toned nostalgia and a love story told as they once were, then there is a certain amount to enjoy in The Hokey Cokey Man; but you must find it in a production that proves a strange failure of its own material.
Al Tabor is the man who composed “The Hokey Cokey” in 1940 during the blitz to raise the spirits of a populace cowering under the menace of German bombers. But the play is rarely focused on the popular song and dance craze, rather, Alan Balfour’s misty-eyed tale tells of his own grandfather’s double-life; torn between his wife Jenny (Anna Acton) and mistress Victoria (Issy Van Randwyck) as he emerges as London society’s favourite bandleader.
Structured as an episodic reminiscence by Tabor in late age, we follow the suave, charismatic young man as he marries, moves from America back to Britain and then decides to whisk a dancer he has auditioned, Victoria, to Paris. There begins a long, 18 year love affair that puts an intense strain on his marriage and relationship with his spirited and soon to be divorced daughter, Eileen, also played by Acton.
While the overt sentimentality and periodic mawkishness of this piece may be just bearable as a style choice, it remains hard to ignore the creakier moments in director Ninon Jerome’s staging and the text itself. In the latter, the experienced Balfour delivers instances of jarring exposition that fall like lead weights on the ears, such as Jenny’s question “what about Eileen, your daughter?” as if suddenly confirming parentage in mid conversation. Also the first half is a collection of short scenes punctuated, or even punctured, by awkward, airy, set changes that have the actor’s scurrying about for a disconcerting length of time, moving curtains and props and consequently letting the air out of the production.
James Doherty though, as Tabor, is a charming presence and manages to trace an interesting trajectory that begins in ebullient bandleader to post-stroke, wiser, older man. Issy Van Randwyck is radiant throughout and convincing as a mistress in love fearing becoming just a “duty call”, while Anna Acton aptly depicts a fractious wife.
Here weightier subjects like miscarriage, family breakdown and even the war are dealt with in a cursory fashion while Tabor’s story, rendered a soft-focus romance, lacks the sustained wit or emotional pull to truly satisfy.