Sex and the single flapper

With squealing gold-diggers and hymns to roughage, a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has its comic moments. But where's the raunch?
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE some works of art that have a sublime self-sufficiency: only a fool would try to expand on them or recast them in another form.

I mean, what could anyone add to Some Like It Hot? It's a rhetorical question but it didn't restrain Jule Styne from inflating the material into a full-scale stage musical. Result: the unforgettably forgettable Sugar.

You'd think the same would be true of another light-hearted masterpiece - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos' unimprovably funny "diary" of a gold-digging, not-so-dumb blonde flapper. Here, though, Styne had better luck with the conversion job. True, there are some pretty duff patches in the score where you have to pinch yourself to credit that these run- of-the-mill tunes and unpointed Twenties pastiches can have been penned by the same man who wrote Gypsy. But the spirit of the book - its amused appreciation of the predatory worldliness behind Lorelei's censorious wide-eyed act - is deliciously preserved in certain numbers that sassily send up and celebrate manipulative sexuality and a world where the man a girl called Daddy ain't her pa.

Sex, however, is precisely what is lacking at the centre of Ian Talbot's genial, slightly amateurish revival at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. Sara Crowe creates some amusing moments projecting Lorelei's unfounded sense of her own refinement: at the mere mention of the word "work", this girl from the wrong side of the tracks sways queasily and she wheels a cocktail shaker as though even this elevated form of manual labour were a mystery to her. But with her pettish bleat and chipmunkey expression, she comes across more as a determined English schoolgirl than as a blonde American bombshell.

When Marilyn Monroe sings "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in the movie version, it's a parody of rampant cupidity: in Crowe's lacklustre rendition, there just isn't enough comic arousal.

It's Debby Bishop who, as Lorelei's wise-cracking chaperone, Dorothy, gives a master class in laid-back teasing raunchiness. "Are we in the way boys?" she enquires insinuatingly when the Parisian father-and-son lawyer duo start covering each other in continental kisses. It's hard to imagine Ms Bishop ever being in the way. She's the best thing in the production, along with the other black performer, Clive Rowe, whose golden tenor voice and winningly open manner carry one over the slight difficulty of believing that, in this period, he could be a button factory heir and a catch for wily Lorelei.

Elsewhere, the show, played on Paul Farnsworth's silver art deco set, is decidedly patchy. Some of the comic cameos are executed so broadly and strenuously, the audience seem to warm to the performers more out of pity than pleasure. Other actors hit on just the right scale like Martin Turner, who as the health fanatic, Josephus Gage, jogs around in a three-piece suit, a fixated gleam in his eye, an unnerving number of nutritious root vegetables in his pocket and a barmy hymn to roughage on his lips: "I start my day with a bowl of bran/and all day through I'm a happy man."

My favourites, though, are the trio of flappers who squeal all the time as if they are being goosed, even when being seated by a waiter from whom they have spectacularly little to fear. As Anita Loos once said, she'd have to call an update Gentleman Prefer Gentleman.

`Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1 (0171 486 2431/1933