Every now and then, musical theatre taps or raps its way into the modern world. It can be the most all-over contradictory way of telling current stories, as in Fun Home, Jerry Springer – the Opera and London Road. Or it can – like Hamilton, Beatbox Frankenstein and the supremely inventive Shockheaded Peter – whoosh a transfusion of new musical blood and lyrics into older tales.
But every now and then, an old show makes innovation look beside the point. It just gangs up on an audience and makes us feel that, however much more rational and well behaved we are, the cast have got us outnumbered. We have to adopt their vocabulary.
Me and My Girl, Noel Gay’s 1937 musical (with book and lyrics by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber), is not peerless but it’s seductive. It became celebrated in the 1980s for having made Stephen Fry’s first million when he revised the script and story (with Mike Okrent), and turned Emma Thompson into a star. Fry brought his Jeevesian side to the project: there is no taint of modern sensibility; its all warbles and whoopses and wide eyes. The plot is skinny and the characters broadbrush: a chap from Lambeth (cue pearly queens and barrow-boy swagger) turns out to be the heir of a grand estate – cue tweeds, armour, chinlessness. Will he be seduced away from the girl he loves back home, or win over the Hampshire toffs?
It’s daft and it’s delicious. It’s a tribute to music hall. That dealt in stereotypes, and didn’t worry too much if one act went a bit slack because there was always another coming up. As there is in Daniel Evans’s lovely production. It is almost impossible to understand how the Chichester audience restrained themselves from joining in The Lambeth Walk as the pearlies jagged away with elbows and knees, and accompaniment on the spoons.
The big news on press night was that Ryan Pidgen, standing in as understudy to Matt Lucas (bad throat), was utterly wonderful, rippling from geezer to hooray with silken and boisterous ease. He had good support: Caroline Quentin, hearty-limbed and sweet-voiced; Jennie Dale as surely the only ever funny singing solicitor; Siubhan Harrison as the upper-class cami-knicker seducer.
And everyone would surely melt to the design and choreography of Lez Brotherston and Alistair David. Both starchy and suggestive: wooden panelled interior; bathing belles in blue and white cossies with rubber flowers wobbling at their temples. Oh, how they leap and lean in together.
Dusty Springfield has long been wishin’ and hopin’ to be made into a musical. What a subject. A mighty talent riddled by difficulty: gay, when a homosexual woman was often treated as a joke; a drinker who was quick with her fists; a perfectionist and self-criticiser who wailed that she “looked like Burt Lancaster”. A woman who did the right thing without swanking: when she toured apartheid South Africa she said she would not sing to segregated audiences – and was forced to leave the country. Most of all, she looked as she sounded. Those giant mascara-rimmed eyes were both proclamation and disguise; spiky, dramatically lashed, as if she were staring out at the world from a fringe of cinders.
Dusty is the third shot in as many years at a musical about Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien (the Catholic background didn’t ease Dusty’s path). It is one of the most uneven shows I have ever seen. It has a glorious star, a wealth of promising material – and an often galumphing script.
For many people – and Bath was on its feet the night I went – a lot can go hang if the Dusty is not so dusty. And Katherine Kingsley is tremendous. She is stealthy with the voice, sneaking up on its huskiness, later letting it off the leash as a gorgeous defiant foghorn. She makes you believe this is a woman who is all right only when performing. So it is all right that she is much more unfettered when singing than when speaking. And that some of the characterisation is damned good wig placement – the beehive, the semi-Tom Jones, the rumpled haystack – and some of it the trademark movements of the twitching head, and the candelabra arms. Because the true thing is the voice: watching Dusty in her long dresses is like seeing a bride doll rotating on a wedding cake to the sound of a full-blown opera.
The opening scene is one of the best in Maria Friedman’s production, a bright re-creation of a recording of Ready Steady Go! – 5-4-3-2-1 – with everyone dancing as if they were strobed, girls with skirts so short they need matching knickers, and Dusty in the green room, feeling too frightened to go on.
From then, it’s a skip between scenes and decades – there’s a lot of “several years later”. There is the undermining mother – sly and subtle Roberta Taylor. The ridiculous pals – her makeup artist and assistant who deal in dud comic lines. The truly interesting moments: when she insists on recording in a lavatory (good acoustics) – and presses for more trumpets. The lover – first-rate Joanna Francis, who is equally good at singing and stropping. The Pet Shop Boys, nicely choreographed as they glide around with fluorescent photoframes. A much too long death scene. Everything swimming in the legend.
Star ratings (out of five)
Me and My Girl ★★★★
• Me and My Girl is at the Festival theatre, Chichester until 25 August
• Dusty is touring until 28 July