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Great British Bake Off: The Musical review – all the ingredients for a theatre treat

The musical has its world premiere at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Manuel Harlan

Back in the golden age of musical theatre, new shows regularly played out-of-town seasons prior to hitting Broadway or the West End, so that the artistic teams could polish up what was good or ditch what wasn't quite working. Creatives Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, and producer Mark Goucher, appear to be going down that route with this musical distillation of the beloved TV baking contest, playing for a two-week season in Cheltenham with no concrete plans to move forward as yet.

Surely, it's only a matter of time though: this gorgeous confection is an authentic crowd pleaser, and more oven-ready than several shows we've seen in the West End of late. Is it perfect? No, but it's already utterly joyous and with a bit of tweaking could become a bona fide knockout.

Brunger and Cleary have already proved, with their razor-sharp Adrian Mole musical at Leicester, the Menier and in the West End a couple of years back, that they have an unusual ability to apply a Broadway-style chutzpah, confidence and craft to a uniquely British story and themes, making them glitter and soar. The tuneful score of Great British Bake Off The Musical has a breathtaking swagger and ambition: there are patter songs, power ballads, raps, rousing chorales and upbeat numbers that bring the house down. If Six's Marlow and Moss's work so far seems aimed more at the pop market, Brunger and Cleary's is innately theatrical.

I assume it's deliberate that the style, musical structure and chord sequences of blockbusters such as Hamilton and Wicked sometimes hang heavily and incongruously over this score, but the weaving-in of Tom Howe's TV music is ingeniously done. Brunger and Cleary's incisive, witty, often inspired lyrics ensure that this show has its own unique, tart flavour, however. It's unashamedly sentimental at times, but also pretty hard to resist.

In a remarkably assured case of having its cake and eating it (and yes I'm aware that is a heinous pun), Rachel Kavanaugh's delicious staging, seasoned with simple but entrancing choreography by Georgina Lamb, finds that sweet spot where it simultaneously sends up the TV show that inspired it, while also paying an affectionate homage. The physical production is colourful and attractive (sets, costumes and cakes, yes cakes, designed by Alice Power, lighting by Ben Cracknell, admirably clear sound by Ben Harrison) if basic, but with material and a cast this good that's pretty much all that's needed.

Structurally it's nearer to a revue than a traditional musical, perhaps inevitably given that it has to encompass an octet of contestants, a pair of presenters plus two judges (a glorious Rosemary Ashe and John Owen Jones gleefully capturing the essence of Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood) and, for a show based upon a TV series rather than a single story, I'm not sure one can ask for much more than that. It could use some pruning and streamlining: having the splendidly funny presenting team of Scott Paige and Jaye Jacobs attired as a pair of giant duelling scones at one point is a bit much, a couple of running jokes feel belaboured, and there are rather too many songs, fabulous though most of them are.

There is a sliver of plot involving Damian Humbley's sweet widower and Charlotte Wakefield's self-effacing full-time carer from Blackpool, the conclusion of which one can see coming a mile off, but it's sold with so much charm, as well as sensational vocals, by these two fine performers that it is impossible not to care.

In fact, the entire cast is terrific. Catriana Sanderson delicately devastates as an Italian baker who has substituted cake making for the children she can't have, Aharon Rayner makes an assured debut as streetwise but lovable Hassan, unsure of how much of hIs Syrian heritage he can bring to the TV screen. Jay Saighal nails the swagger and fragile masculinity of a toe-curling hipster and Simbi Akande is flat-out hilarious as a ragingly ambitious spoilt princess. Michael Cahill sparkles, but deftly sidesteps cliché, as camply stylish but sensitive Russell.

Claire Moore, one of the most astonishing musical talents of her generation (she succeeded Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors and Sarah Brightman in Phantom, and was Miss Saigon's original Ellen), initially seems a tad underused as sassy, thrice-married Eastender Babs. However, she gets an explosive eleven o'clock number, pitched halfway between Music Hall and Broadway showstopper, that finally justifies such luxury casting. It's a rollicking, full-throated ode to unrequited love, and Moore's barnstorming rendition of it - at once hilarious, deeply touching and vocally enthralling - is the stuff theatregoers memories are made of. It may be extraneous to the plot, such as it is, but it's worth the ticket price all by itself.

Like the finest baked goods, this delightful musical feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar. It's warm, a bit messy but a feast of fun, and its life-affirming big heartedness and sugary goodness may just be the soul-feeding nourishment we all need right now. I smell a smash hit.