Pretty Woman: The Musical review – tasteless romcom returns with tunes

Piccadilly theatre, London
Danny Mac and Aimie Atkinson star in the schmaltzy and shallow Hollywood tale, told with a few winning songs

A businessman picks up a sex worker to turn her into his high-class escort for the week and they fall in love. However distasteful the elevator pitch for Pretty Woman may sound, it was a romcom that won hearts in 1990 and became the stuff of box-office dreams.

This musical adaptation about Vivian the prostitute and Edward the corporate vulture (he buys failing companies and sells them at profit) comes amid a surge of 80s and 90s nostalgia, including stage adaptations of Back to the Future and Indecent Proposal. Its wide-eyed worship of wealth makes no apology for the idea that everything – even love – emanates from the exchange of cold, hard cash.

Can the story still win us over? Not exactly. This feels like a shallow and at times tasteless show but, within the rules of a romcom, it works in its central, schmaltzy storyline of love despite the odds. There is also some attempt, however bolted on, to update the story’s sexual politics.

Aimie Atkinson as Vivian Ward and Bob Harms as Mr Thompson.
Dressing up as Julia Roberts … Aimie Atkinson as Vivian. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Aimie Atkinson plays Vivian as wholesome but slightly harder-faced than Julia Roberts and does not have the latter’s all-eclipsing ebullience. Her romance with Danny Mac, as Edward, feels undercharged and, if anything, suggests the transactional relationship between an emotionally distant rich man and a sex worker. Discomforting lines emerge in songs: “I’ll be a hooker in a raincoat,” she says to Edward when he makes her look respectable on entering his upmarket hotel. “He will want to see you with your buttons undone,” a character sings, in another bilious moment.

Jerry Mitchell’s production has an ersatz feel, as if revelling in its nostalgia; sex workers lining Hollywood Boulevard are in retro leather miniskirts and jean jackets. Atkinson looks like she has dressed up as Roberts in black thigh boots and blond wig. Danny Mac appears to be channelling Richard Gere, not only in his look but also in the woodenness of his performance.

The book by JF Lawton, who wrote the original screenplay, and Garry Marshall, the film’s director, sounds as if they are striving for the same magic to be created on stage through workmanlike imitation. But there are ways in which it updates itself, however unsatisfying that is. Vivian is emphatically the brighter of the couple. She quotes George Bernard Shaw in a nod to the Pygmalion myth that resonates through the film. Later, she sings: “It’s me who’s in control … I say who, I say when, I say how much.” However saccharine the story’s ending, Vivian at least wins Edward on her own terms.

Pygmalionesque … Vivian and Edward after her transformation.
Pygmalionesque … Vivian and Edward after her transformation. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

The score by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance often veers into the bland but there are some strong voices and a few winning songs. Rachael Wooding as Vivian’s fellow sex worker, Kit, is especially impressive alongside Bob Harms in his double role as the hotel manager and a figure called Happy Man. We wait for Roy Orbison’s signature song, which comes at the end and is the best musical moment of the night.

Some of the witty dance numbers stand out, especially those featuring an underplayed substory between a dancing bellboy, Giulio, played bewitchingly by Alex Charles, and Harms’s dancing hotel manager, Mr Thompson.

Hotel staff in Hi-de-Hi style blazers congregate in these same-sex dance numbers and bring camp, glinting mischief to the musical. Sadly, it melts away but, even so, the nascent love story between Giulio and Mr Thompson feels, for a time, like there’s another, more daring musical fighting to get out of this one.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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