THEATRE / Plain dealer: Rhoda Koenig on The Card in Regent's Park

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The Independent Culture
A sort of 'How to Succeed in Bursley without Really Trying', Arnold Bennett's novel The Card tells how a brash but likeable young man of the Five Towns rises and rises on the steam of his bright ideas. With its music by Tony Hatch, and lyrics by Hatch, Jackie Trent, and Anthony Drewe, this version - a revised form of the 1973 show - is hardly on the level of Frank Loesser. But, with its agreeable cast, and the endearing constants of the Open Air Theatre (foliage, moonlight, plenty of pep, hopeless choreography), it makes pleasantly genteel entertainment for a summer evening.

Never mind the weightless plot, just feel the quantity. Denry Machin, determined to blaze amid Potteries clay, exploits every opportunity that comes his way, whether it be a disgruntled landlady, a blank invitation card, or a shipwreck, and comes out of it richer and more notorious. Yet, though he rises from clerk to mayor, he remains the same cheeky schoolboy he started, acquiring a wife as an afterthought and with about as much use for an inner

life as an Eskimo has for a straw hat.

Librettists Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall cram the musical with incident, but don't leave it much room to breathe. One minute Denry is proposing to the local dancing teacher, the next he is disgusted by her extravagance and breaks off the engagement. Several numbers bear a heavy burden of exposition, and impossibly long lines are weakly supported by notes noodling around in search of a melody. Nor is Denry given much depth by such introspection as 'Is it a crime to try and reach for something more?'. The director, Ian Talbot, makes this all very brisk, but is a bit heavy on quaint groups of townspeople milling and nodding with an 'Ooh, whatever next?' expression as they sing the praises of that naughty Denry: 'He's a wag, he's a rascal with plenty to say / He breaks all the rules, and he does things his way]'

Where The Card scores is in its appealing characters, such as the two women contending for Denry. Jessica Martin gives an assured, lightly amusing performance in the Joan Greenwood vein as a small-time femme fatale, and Jenna Russell, as her tart- tongued but sweet-natured rival, makes her banal unrequited love song into a touching interlude. Denry himself could have been fatally bumptious, like Tommy Steele in a musical with a similar setting and theme, Half a Sixpence. But Peter Duncan plays him as a self-effacing scamp, nearly bowled over by his own good luck.

As Denry's patron, the Countess of Chell, Hayley Mills certainly looks the part (indeed, she looks startlingly like the Duchess of Kent), but acts as if graciously bestowing her presence on the play. When the songs let them have some fun (instead of explaining the plot, or their feelings), so do we, as in the slightly hysterical frolic on Llandudno pier.

Tim Goodchild's cheerful set practically does handsprings to convert itself from a main street into a tailor's shop, a dance academy, or a mansion where flowers obediently shoot up after a tiny sprinkle from the countess's watering can. It's a construction that's cleverer than the lyrics or dialogue, but what this Card lacks in wit it amply makes up in good nature.

At the Open Air Theatre, London NW1, to 10 Sept. Booking: 071-486 2431

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