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Review: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Chiswick Playhouse)

Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts' 1995 musical revue is revamped for this Off-West End run

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Naomi Slights, Dominic Hobson and George Rae in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
© Savannah Photographic

Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts' sweet and tangy musical revue about the pitfalls and joys of romantic relationships played over 5,000 performances off-Broadway and has been produced all over the world since its 1995 premiere. However, despite a fine cast, the first West End production wasn't a huge success – maybe the material was deemed too kookie, too American, for cynical British tastes – and disappeared with almost indecent haste back in 1999.

There have been a couple of short-lived revivals but this new edition, drastically streamlined, updated (and also heavily Anglicised for this staging), has never been seen in the UK before. It now features several sensitively drawn, credible gay characters, and the female voices within the piece are punchier and have more agency – apart from Sondheim and possibly William Finn, it is hard to think of another male lyricist who writes as well for women as DiPietro does here. The show may have slimmed down to 80 interval-free minutes, but the comic and emotional engagement stakes feel considerably higher than before. In short, it is an utter delight and it's tempting to wonder how differently this might have fared had it been the original London version.

Charlotte Westenra's wonderfully fluid production, enhanced with surprisingly athletic but seldom intrusive choreography by Steven Harris, gives full measure to the hilarity and heartbreak contained within the vignettes that make up this funny, touching musical. Although the scenes and songs aren't directly connected, there is an overriding arc whereby the early part of the show deals with excruciating first dates, the middle section depicts marriage then break-ups, and the final tranche looks at love later in life (there's a particularly poignant, sweetly humorous sequence with a pair of elderly gay gentlemen chatting each other up at a funeral they'd both inadvertently wandered into). George Rae and Dominic Hodson excel in this scene, the former wary and uptight, the latter cheeky and charmingly forward.

These superb singer-actors are matched exquisitely by Laura Johnson and Naomi Slights playing a variety of roles, from a nauseatingly 'together' lesbian couple cooing obsessively over their first child, to a pair of increasingly disgruntled women on disastrous (separate) first dates in the counterpoint duet "Single Man Drought".

The cast are a stellar quartet and the beauty of a show with as many characters, scenes and tonal shifts as this is that they each get chance to show off their formidable skills. Slights is riveting and very moving in a monologue for a divorcee relaunching herself into romantic life via video dating. Johnson performs a gloriously witty solo as a perennial bridesmaid describing herself through the various hideous dresses she has been forced to wear over the years. Hodson gets a terrific number as a middle aged dad whose only really satisfying relationship is now with his car, and Rae makes something fine and powerful out of a ballad where he watches his long-standing wife (Johnson, subtly ageing up) and marvels at how much he still adores her.

Really, what's not to love? Very little actually: there is an ill-advised attempt at rapping that takes the updating a step too far, and the apparent determination to include almost every British regional accent (except Welsh... what's wrong with Welsh?) gets a little bewildering. Roberts' tunes are attractive but not especially memorable.

Overall though this is a very satisfying piece of theatre – winningly funny, truthful, refreshingly good-hearted despite some delicious barbs, and cutting unexpectedly deep at times. The overriding message is that relationships are challenging but worth it in the end: it's the theatrical equivalent of that friend who tells you a few home truths and that you really need to get over yourself, then gives you the warmest bear hug.

This is an auspicious start to the Tabard's rebirth as the Chiswick Playhouse, and well worth heading west to catch. I loved it, it's not quite perfect, but there's very little I would change. Life-enhancing stuff.