It's 1952 and we are in a rundown burlesque theatre ‘somewhere in America’. It's familiar territory – the loves and squabbles of the backstage boys and girls, the gold-digging new girl who wants to better herself and doesn’t care how, the world-weary theatre owner and the seen-it-all/done-it-all mother figure. It is theatre as metaphor.
The backers are pulling out, it’s time to move on, it’s the end of an era. And what pulls all this together, just, into something rather more than cliché is the fact that it is also, of course, the height of the McCarthy witch-hunt.
After a somewhat patchy first half, which spends too much time trying to make us love all the characters, we get into something much more like top musical gear when the show’s comedian Johnny Reno, played like a young Donald O’Connor by the engaging Jon-Paul Hevey, is torn between pursuing love and happiness or remaining loyal to his buddy. In order to achieve the former, with his pregnant girl, he has to ‘name’ his buddy and comedy partner as a communist.
Here the emotion of the political situation and the personal desires of the characters are melded into something truly moving. In particular Chris Holland impresses as Rags Ryan, the gay comedy partner with a commie past, although the brilliant song which culminates in his suicide could have finished with much more of a bang than a feeble pop of a gun. It would have been more shocking and more theatrically appropriate.
Linal Haft and Buster Skeggs are the perfect embodiment of the old hands in the lower ranks of showbiz, who are both washed up and know it, and the three strippers (Alicia Davies, Sinead Mathias and Victoria Serra) are a delight, if occasionally underpowered vocally.
One can’t escape the feeling, though, that the authors, Adam Meggido (who also directs) and Roy Smiles, have crammed a little too much onto the small but beautifully realised set (designer Martin Thomas). This is a show that is slick, sassy and heartfelt, but it needs to spread into a larger space, both literally and artistically. It needs more than single piano accompaniment, and the choreography (Cressida Carré) needs more room to breathe.
- Giles Cole