What’s New Pussycat? review – high-voltage collision of two Tom Joneses

Birmingham Repertory theatre
The 18th-century novel and Welsh crooner meet on 1960s Carnaby Street in a spirited jukebox musical

This is a madcap mashup of a musical. Its basic premise is, bizarrely, a meeting of two Tom Joneses: the foundling and rakish antihero of Henry Fielding’s eponymous bildungsroman and the latter-day, hip-swinging Welsh crooner. It takes romping plotlines from the former and hit songs from the latter. The result is a musical that could pass for a Christmas show with its gaudy colours, picaresque comedy that teeters on pantomime and its very own singalong moment (Delilah).

Dragging Fielding’s 18th-century village life forward to London’s Carnaby Street of the swinging 60s, it seems to revel in its look and style for too long: there are fabulously psychedelic stage designs (by Jon Bausor, new sets bursting out of old ones), costumes to die for (geometric designs and peppermint stripes, all by Janet Bird) and dazzling lighting (by Howard Hudson) that climbs the stage walls and reaches into the auditorium. One song follows another, jukebox like, and Joe DiPietro’s story feels slightly subsumed by the styling.

Directed by Luke Sheppard, every character knows how to belt out a big number, and Arlene Phillips’s choreography comes together with the lighting to create a bombshell of visual effects, even if many of the early scenes look like pop videos set in a hyper-real 1960s.

What's New Pussycat?
Bubblegum air … What’s New Pussycat? Photograph: Pamela Raith

Dominic Andersen’s Tom is a devilishly handsome rogue who reinvents himself as a rock star. Andersen does not always make the songs his own and when he begins It’s Not Unusual, you could be forgiven for missing Tom Jones’s richer voice. Bronté Barbé as his love interest, Mary Weston, is also duly feisty – she speaks of the patriarchy and designs skirts that look just like Mary Quant’s revolutionary minis.

Neither set the stage alight, but the secondary couple – Mr Partridge (Ashley Campbell), a lovably infatuated yokel, and a shop assistant dubbed The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (Rebekah Hinds, full of sass, funny lines and arched eyebrows) – ooze charm and chemistry. Their star-crossed love gives the show its heart.

As the comedy becomes more pronounced and the plot gathers its delightfully ridiculous twists, the show gains character. Lemuel Knights gives a storming performance as Big Mickey – a wild-eyed prisoner who, rather spuriously, sings Delilah, with fellow inmates pirouetting balletically around him – and brings this musical fully to life. The show feels almost like a farce by the time it reaches a wedding scene in which secret identities, paternities and sexualities are revealed.

It plays fast and loose with Fielding’s doorstop novel, bypassing its beginning for the juicily tangled love triangle between Tom, his jealous brother Blifil (Harry Kershaw) and Mary. As in the book, Tom is banished from the village and later jailed, but the reasons here are vague. There is a clever reworking of Tom’s marriage proposal to the wealthy Lady Bellaston (Kelly Price), who owns a shop and wears the best costumes.

The show never quite loses its bubblegum air but distils the scheming spirit of the novel and, just like Tom, reveals its own anarchic spirit to become sheer, high-voltage fun.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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