A/V Room









'If only'... the comedy had not been hammered home

Review by Paul Nelson

THERE are those among us who will go anywhere to hear a revival of a musical. The BBC, not unaware of this, occasionally, too rarely for some, gives concert performances of forgotten (by whom this zealot asks?) musical scores. These are usually faithful copies of the original first night.

Otherwise, one has to rely on the commercial theatre companies to revive a musical. These, glaringly in the case of musicals by Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, usually mean that a management loss of bottle forces the producers to add numbers from other shows by the same authors, to pad out (what they consider) the inadequate score. In most cases they are sadly deluded.

The other source of revivals of musicals are enterprising small theatre companies. These, as a rule, stick to the once avant-garde, shows written in more troubled European times by luminaries such as Brecht, Weill, Brel and so forth, the latter commenting on the state of the art of not only politics but love.

One theatre that consistently throws itself into the fray for what I can gather is its own pleasure, is the Landor in Clapham North.

Almost invariably the house production company of this theatre takes over its own space and delights its audiences with sometimes obscure, sometimes obvious, revivals, and these enjoy a degree of box-office success, depending on how the choice of show grabs the audience, never a matter to be accurately forecast.

The rest of the year, this enterprising group leases its theatre to other companies and often these musicals, and plays, wave the Landor banner to excellent mutual good.

Currently on offer is Bye Bye Birdie, one of the most delightful and original scores to come out of Broadway in the latter half of the last century. It effortlessly eclipses Grease, which was written some 12 years later, is subtler and has the genuine feel about it.

First performed in 1960 the musical takes for its plot a pop idol being drafted into the army and weaves in the saving graces of a couple's love to temper and occasionally point the satire.

The plot: Conrad Birdie, massive rock pop star, is to be drafted into the army. Albert Peterson, his agent, owes money to him and faces ruin because of the draft. Rose, Albert's girl, who wants him to give it all up and become an English teacher in a college, dreams up a plan to get Albert off the hook, and say goodbye to Birdie, publicly and definitely, so that they can be married.

Part of the plan centres on Birdie singing a new song written by Albert; 'One Last Kiss', and bestowing a kiss on a high school kid, a member of his fan club, in front of nation-wide TV, thus providing a get-out for Albert, a hit for Conrad, and freedom for Rose and Albert to get hitched.

The chosen girl has recently become 'pinned' by her boyfriend. Pinned means they have sworn to be faithful to each other and resist dating others. He is not wild about the idea that his girl is to be kissed by her idol. So, most of the plot holds the attention as it works out, what doesn't resolve lends itself to some choice comedy. There is a happy ending.

The play is set in the age of Elvis and fanmania. The one contemporary fact being that Elvis, in the middle of his successful career, had to face the draft and join the army to do his national service and this triggered the plot.

The score remains indestructible with more enchanting and hummable tunes than any show post WW2 with the possible exception of Plain and Fancy (I exclude those by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Berlin and Porter).

Interestingly, the score is the first Strouse and Adams, the writers, put together for Broadway. The book, too, is a tight little affair, which manages to extend the one joke by adding a little social comment, a little political satire and a lot of romance with appropriate ballads.

In short, an evening to enjoy with an insouciance one can rarely attach to more modern shows.


Oh dear, that little word. This is not a Landor production, it belongs to a guest company and to begin with, it looks under-rehearsed.

It is, therefore, with regret that I have to point out that it is a very thin affair, with most of the principals over-selling their comedy by hitting the lead-in lines to the big joke as though they were the joke itself.

This is like being hammered, in some occasions rhythmically, with a large baseball bat. Naturally, the end result is a headache.

Chief among the sell-it brigade is Rose (Theresa Lawrence), every line when not delivered as a curtain line is smashed into the audience with the strength of the Williams sisters at Centre Court.

Believe me, in the past, I have longed for such delivery, but this is not the show for it.

Overshadowed by this powerful rendition, Albert (Karl Clarkson) has to work hard all night and fight for his stage space. It tends to overbalance the evening.

It is a catching disease and both Kim (Lisa Cassidy), the girl chosen to be kissed by Conrad, and Hugo (Glenn Macnamara), to whom she has recently been pinned, succumb to it.

A surprise is that Conrad, the sex symbol himself (Spencer James), is a rather willowy, slender and gawky man, not what one would have expected.

To be fair to the lad, he ingratiates himself into the favours of the audience with his individual type of panache and puts across his numbers, especially 'Honestly Sincere', which has rather more to do with the plot line than be just a show number. The song succeeds in both camps.

There is a neat mother from hell in Mae (Carol Ball).

Once again, as with most musicals these days, the evening is a showcase for the dancing chorus, who throw themselves whole-heartedly into the proceedings and generally save the bacon.

The screaming girl fans, in particular, lift one's heart and made the evening for me. With a lacklustre chorus, the evening would have been dire indeed. The score is still to be enjoyed and proved to be an ear/eye-opener for some members of the audience.

A similar musical these days would have involved a boy or girl band, not a soloist, and the prospect of the kids in this chorus actually being the leads in the show is a lip-smacking prospect, but, alas, that is not to be. We must enjoy their splendidly costumed performances as a background to the action and wail that oft repeated phrase 'if only'.

Bye Bye Birdie, Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Directed by Paul Tate, Choreographer Richard Swerrun, Musical Director Amanda Morrison, Costume Designer Susan Hale, Lighting Designer Miguel Ribeiro. WITH: Karl Clarkson (Albert Peterson), Theresa Lawrence (Rose Alvarez), Rebecca Louis (Deborah-Sue), Victoria George (Nancy), Kim Harvey (Ursula), Caroline Newman (Penelope), Matthew Scott Hale (Harvey), Angus Jacobs (Peyton), Mark Dugdale (Randolph MacAfee), Lisa Cassidy (Kim MacAfee), Lesley Lightfoot (Mrs MacAfee), Paul Tate (Mr MacAfee), Carol Ball (Mrs Peterson), Spencer James (Conrad Birdie), Jody Hall (Reporter, Mayor, Anchor Man, Maude), Jess Plumridge (Reporter, Mrs Merkle, Studio Assistant), Glen Macnamara (Hugo). Presented by Paul Tate Productions in association with Dympna la Rasle and Time Of Our Lives Music Theatre at the Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, Clapham North, London SW9. Tickets 020 7737 7276.

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