Review: Promises, Promises (Southwark Playhouse)

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s musical based on ”The Apartment” is revived by Bronagh Lagan

Gabriel Vick as Chuck & Daisy Maywood as Fran
Gabriel Vick as Chuck & Daisy Maywood as Fran

Light, bright and really rather nice to know, Chuck Baxter is an ambitious young man who tries to further his insurance career by loaning his bachelor apartment to senior colleagues for their extra-marital affairs.

Based on the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment, starring the incomparable Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, this musical adaptation was a huge Broadway hit in 1968, running for 1,281 performances.

With lyrics and music by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the score of Promises, Promises caused a sensation at the time, not least because of its innovative offstage backing vocals – an effect which is still striking in Southwark Playhouse today, and gives the opening number an extra kick.

The live musicians, led by Joe Louis Robinson, are on great form and deliver a sprightly performance with Connor Smither a standout on trumpet.

Daisy Maywood’s vulnerable, sparky Fran is wonderfully appealing, though it’s a mystery why she delivers her first big number with her back to most of the audience. However her tender closing duet with Chuck, "I’ll Never Fall In Love Again", is beautifully done, with Gabriel Vick’s delicate guitar accompaniment light as air.

Vick has a pleasing mix of hapless naivety and self-effacing charm as Chuck, and his singing voice is delightful. Although the early laughs that should come thick and fast don't always quite get there, his later scenes with Fran have real emotional impact.

In fact the best – and most sincere – laughs are reserved for Alex Young as Marge who makes a bar-room beeline for Chuck, and their drunken duet "A Fact Can Be A Beautiful Thing", is an uproarious showstopper.

Simon Wells’ ambitious cityscape set is full of angles and rather worrying wobbly doors, and the atmosphere is boosted by video projections and sharp, mood-switching lighting from Derek Anderson. Wells’ costumes are terrific – Christmas jumpers included – while hair and make-up designer Cynthia de la Rosa creates on-point '60s styles for the cast.

The swinging '60s may look pretty, but this satirical story is very much of its time, and the good old-fashioned sexism bordering on misogyny that runs throughout takes some swallowing, despite being wrapped up in song and dance routines. And with a running time of a full three hours, there may be an argument for some subtle trims to the first half.

However, director Bronagh Lagan’s enthusiasm for the project, and the full-throated energy of the entire ensemble make this a spirited production that captures at least some of The Apartment’s original magic.

Promises, Promises runs at Southwark Playhouse until 18 February.