Sail Away, Lilian Baylis Theatre: Sadler's Wells, London


When a handsome young man assures the older star of Noël Coward's 1961 show Sail Away that, "Songbirds still sing/ Later than spring", and later croons, "Don't turn away from love", one feels there's some wishful thinking in this musical about, ahem, cruising. The star, however, is the ship's social director, Mimi.

Mimi conducts a demure romance, two younger passengers have another, and various Americans exhibit their ignorance and obnoxious children. There is, however, no conflict and no real narrative, with none of the naive, pushy travellers doing anything outrageous.

With such a paucity of plot and disregard for character (a near-illiterate alludes to The Forsyte Saga in one line, a Victorian ballad in the next), the focus is on the songs, which, though not in Coward's first or even second tier, are full of professional charm. The title number is a light but heartfelt yearning for what's beyond the horizon; the line "When you feel your song is orchestrated wrong..." amuses not only for the deft metaphor but the thought that this was enough of a sore spot with Coward the composer to make Coward the lyricist discard his usual fastidiousness.

The best song, however, is "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?", an anguished catalogue of the sins of tourist hordes: "What explains this mass mania/ To leave Pennsylvania/ And clack around like flocks of geese/ Demanding dry martinis on the Isles of Greece?"

An even greater pleasure is, as usual, the splendid cast in this latest of Ian Marshall Fisher's "Lost Musicals". The one exception, sadly, is Penny Fuller, who has an appealing good-sport personality but seemed unfamiliar with the role of Mimi and, in a part that demands belting at speed, was halting and frequently inaudible.

Otherwise, though, the company includes such delights as the juicy camping of Stewart Permutt's author of bodice-rippers, dictating scenes of throbbing passion; the lovely, plaintive voice of Henry Luxemburg as Mimi's young man; and the self-parodying smoothness of James Vaughan as an unflappable purser. Seated at the piano is Chris Walker, his sympathetic and enthusiastic accompaniment keeping the musical's engine cheerfully purring.

To 13 July (0844 412 4300)

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