This should have the West End looking over its shoulder

Review by Paul Nelson

The Jermyn Street Theatre is yet another much needed space for the revival of those gems of the musical theatre that are too small for anything like the major West End houses. These theatres, however, attract the biggest names, and indeed some of them have such enormous talent that you wonder if the walls of the place are going to bulge outward.

Just such an evening is presented with Over My Shoulder, a tribute to the life of Britain's first really big musical comedy star to make it into films, Jessie Matthews. It was through her films that she made the most extraordinary impact on her fans, multiplying their already huge number by the hundreds with each picture.

This all too short musical salute to her talent fills the stage at Jermyn Street with copious amounts of talent, from the two actors who both play their parts superbly as well as alternating at the piano, through to every other member of the cast. All the male members can sing and dance equally well, and their acting leaves no desire for anything better.

This entire compactness of the show must be a source of pride to its director, Stewart Nicholls, who excels himself with this production. The play tells the story of Jessie Matthews' life both as it unfolds, with a young Jesse playing the aspiring and full-blown star, and a more real Jessie Mathews, now waiting at Buckingham Palace to receive her honour from the Queen.

As the events affect young Jessie, the older looks on with sympathy, reliving the sadder moments as well as the brighter ones. Occasionally, the two join each other in a duet, which is charming.

In fact that word 'charm' just about sums up the appeal of the show. It is an elusive quality that has been missing from London for some years, and here it is presented with one of the most impressive casts presently in the West End.

The evening provides a showcase for the actors who play the men in Jessie's life, her husbands, various lovers (though these are played down somewhat) and the producers and co-stars in her life.

Running through the show is the loyalty and advice she had from her sister, Rosie. The rest of her family, her father was a Covent Garden porter; appear as indifferent to her career and success.

Musically speaking it takes us from her audition for the great CB Cochran, for whom she sang Chick, Chick, Chicken, to Andre Charlot and his revues, and Victor Saville, who directed most of her major musical films.

It touches on the abortion she had while in New York, the result of an importunate fling with a French playboy, her marriage to Harry Lytton and their divorce. It records her subsequent marriage to Sonnie Hale, which also failed due to her star eclipsing his and finally, after some frankly disappointing tours, to her radio career as Mrs Dale.

The musical numbers are put across with as much fidelity to the style of the day as is possible without making that style seem ludicrous and stilted by today's choreographic standards, and here there is one of the greatest chances any actress has ever had in London for some years.

Without stooping to be too faithful a copy, Suzy Bloom makes an impact as Young Jessie. She has a charming (that word again, but it is a strong factor in the success of the show) voice and manner and can dance.

I could have wished there had been more of the legendary theatrical backstage stories. As for instance when she complained that Jack Buchanan was not a good enough dancer to co-star with her in a musical and walked out declaring "Let Marjorie do it then!" Marjorie was her understudy, did indeed do it, and changed her name - to Anna Neagle.

As Jessie's sister, Rosie, there is a warm yet strong performance from Abigail Langham. Her presence is made the more marked because of her infrequent visits to the plot of the play, and when she is not on the stage during the more dramatic moments, she is missed.

The men, each one of them, also make a strong impact.

Sonnie Hale is played by Andrew Halliday and he has all the talent as a dancer and singer to more than give an impression of Hale. He is equally tender and pouting as the plot requires as their love affair blossoms and then collapses.

Stephen Carlile, too, as first husband Lytton (and a very amusing pastiche Fred Astaire) sings with a handy lilt to the voice that we don't get too often in the theatre these days.

Duncan Wisbey as Cochran holds the first act plot together and makes the announcements as from a podium. It is a strong, and necessarily so, performance. He is one of the pianists for the musical numbers.

The other actor/pianist is Ben Stock who also plays Victor Saville. Mr Stock seems to be popping up all over the place these days so I expect it's just a matter of time before we will be seeing him back in the West End in an even bigger role.

Playing a love-rat doesn't at once strike me as being the role for the charming Daniel Fine but he does an excellent piece of work and his dancing, as Buddy Bradley, who choreographed Ever Green among other things, produces an excellent partnership with Miss Bloom.

The main role of Jessie Matthews, one which makes the audience realise what London has missed for some time and is still missing, provides a vehicle for the electrifying Anne Rogers.

Miss Rogers was the original star of The Boy Friend, and Like Jessie Matthews, a run of the play contract meant she could not get to New York to repeat her first success. In addition, like Jessie Matthews, she later made her own mark there, not once but several times. She enjoyed an almost unique and extraordinary position of never having been out of work, taking anything other than the star part, or playing less than a thousand performances in any show.

With standard musical numbers always associated with Jessie Matthews from the likes of Coward, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin, it is very pleasant to hear again some of the songs she made famous by English songwriters. Songs like When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart; May I Have the Next Romance With You, and Three Wishes, can still hold a candle to the very best of the American output. The shame is they never are plugged so often, but they are nevertheless fine songs.

The only complaint I have heard is that the book and music do not follow the star's life chronologically, but as we are at one and the same time witnessing the Young Jessie being seen through the eyes of the older Jessie I fail to find that a problem.

Whatever, the show comes to its finale with such stunning excitement that the audiences leave the theatre reluctantly and gloriously happy. Backed by an all singing all dancing chorus of the extremely talented male members of the cast, the two Jessies go through a finale of Gangway and Over My Shoulder that takes their breath away and brings the audience to its feet. I could still hear the cheering as I hurried down Jermyn Street to get to my office to write this.

Once word is out, this will probably be one of the hottest tickets in town and it is there for but a limited run. Over My Shoulder a musical biography by Richard Stirling. Presented by Jermyn Street Theatre and Evergreen Theatrical Productions Ltd., at Jermyn Street Theatre, London W1.

Anne Rogers, Jessie Matthews; Suzy Bloom, Young Jessie; Abigail Langham, Rosie Matthews; Stephen Carlile, Harry Lytton/Fred Astaire; Andrew Halliday, Sonnie Hale; Duncan Wisbey, CB Cochran/Bing Crosby/Pianist; Ben Stock, Victor Saville/Pianist; Daniel Fine, Felipe/Buddy Bradley.
Directed by Stewart Nicholls; Musical Supervisor & Vocal Arranger Rowland Lee; Lighting Designer Mike Robertson; Costume Designer Ilona Karas Prokopcova.