A Michael Bogdanov NT production in 1983 fell flat and received short critical shift, so Gavin McAlinden’s revival for Charm Offensive in the new Southwark Playhouse is a pleasant surprise, capturing the intense dottiness of the Vanderhof household despite a mild sense of cultural alienation in the audience. Who understands, after all, why the rich kid, Tony Kirby (Matt Barber) should think of his sweet fiancée from the family firm, Alice Sycamore (Maria Bonner), as “the Kay Francis of Kirby and Co”?
The new Playhouse is an unkind, vaulted venue, too, with ungainly dimensions, the constant rumbling of trains arriving at London Bridge and a miserable bar area. Still, McAlinden’s large cast sets about the three act farce – badly divided into two halves; why do this? – with brio and conviction.
The proceedings are wryly supervised by Gawn Grainger, giving a beautifully sage and generously spirited performance as the ancient patriarch Martin Vanderhof who has given up Wall Street and never paid income tax. His daughter Penny (Sadie Shimmin) writes impossible plays for no better reason than because someone delivered a typewriter to the house by accident.
Penny’s husband Paul Sycamore (Ian Porter) makes fireworks in the cellar with the mysterious Mr de Pinner (Neil Boorman), a foreigner of some sort, an iceman who cometh eight years ago and stayeth ever since. Alice’s sister Essie (former Royal Ballet star Sarah Wildor) is a lumpen dancer whose husband Ed Carmichael (Mark Hesketh) runneth a printing press in the living room corner.
Alice’s romance with Tony survives the intrusion of his respectable parents (Peter Gale and Carolyn Lister) on a scene of madcap mayhem involving a drunken actress and an exiled Russian countess who ends up cooking blinis (both parts resoundingly played by Caroline Fenton), and there are well-orchestrated comic set pieces such as the word association game and the pirouettes and pratfalls of the dancer and the actress.
The production certainly conveys the Depression era message of the importance of having fun in adversity, even if the hectic Helzapoppin quality of the play feels seriously dated. But Hart and Kaufman were wonderful writers, with a fine ear for absurdity and a civilising wittiness that still comes across hot and strong.
- Michael Coveney