I’ve had a week of watching new takes on old shows. Having taken in an updated HMS Pinafore and a modern version of a Plautus play - productions where there were constant knowing references to the weaknesses of the plots and the implausibilities - it made a change to watch a production that made an attempt to hide the underlying preposterousness of the story. In their 1968 spoof of 1930s musicals, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller relish all the longeurs – and add a few of their own.
Dames at Sea contains every musical cliché going: sailors - check; the impossible star - check; the ingénue who’s going to seize her opportunity -check. In fact, the only thing missing is the gangster sub-plot – but then any sort of sub-plot would have been useful here.
What this show reminds me of are the musical numbers that used to appear on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials. They’d spend 10 minutes triumphantly sending up an aspect of the genre, making plenty of people laugh.
Haimsohn and Miller have taken a thin idea and stretched it even thinner. It’s particularly lacking in jokes. When one tries to spoof a genre, the first thing one should do is make it funny. They operate under the simple belief that writing some pastiches and using plenty of clichés is funny in itself. Jim Wise’s music is also unmemorable; the songs sound like musicals standards but ten minutes after the production ends, all the tunes have been forgotten.
Full marks to the cast, particularly Tim Flavin, who not only starred but also directed and choreographed it too; it was a bit of surprise not to see him serving the wine in the interval. He keeps the action (such as it is) zipping along and is better than this play deserves. There’s some valiant work too from Kathryn Evans as the ageing prima donna. In fact, all this talented cast worked hard and made the evening more bearable. There’s also an attractive set from Julie Godfrey – albeit with strong hints of the National Theatre’s Anything Goes design.
It’s hard to understand why Dames at Sea has been revived. The cast of six must be attractive for cost-conscious producers but there are plenty of good musicals with smaller casts. And why should audiences want to see a second-rate send-up of 30s musicals when there have been plenty of first-rate revivals of the genre recently?
One small point: this production has the worst programme I’ve ever seen. All one expects is some basic information about the history of the play, something about the authors of the piece and perhaps some thoughts on the production. Judging by the information contained in the programme, the writers seem content to reside in blissful anonymity. Judging by the quality of this production, I can’t say I’m surprised.