An old-fashioned show of strength

THEATRE
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It would be wrong to crack Dames at Sea up to be anything more than a welcome revival of a small-scale Broadway musical that's witty, skilful, endearingly tongue-in-cheek (but never sneery) with a bucket- load of tunes, tap routines and jokes. Nothing else, then, than delightful. Dames at Sea only runs to the end of the week, but it possesses the kind of fresh immediacy one can never get in the modern blockbuster musical, built as they are to run into the next millennium.

It may be because it was first written as a sketch (in 1968) to be performed in the corner of a supper club, that Dames at Sea has a cheeky effervescence. It may also be that as part of the BOC Covent Garden Festival the budget imposes a blissfully creative restraint: two brightly coloured sets (attractively designed by James Hendy), a band made up of two pianists and a drummer, and a cast of six.

With book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise, Dames at Sea is an affectionate pastiche of every backstage Broadway musical. A girl from out-of-town, Ruby (the sparkling Joanne Farrell), turns up at the stage door wanting to make it in showbiz. She is immediately befriended by Joan, played by Sara Crowe (the girl from the Philadelphia ads). Crowe is becoming our most individual young comedienne, having developed her own brand of unimpressed comedy: vacant expressions, delayed reactions, squeakily nasal responses.

The wannabe plot moves with comical speed. Backstage, Farrell meets a sailor, Dick (Jason Gardiner, with a smile as wide as Astaire's), who is also a song-writer, who - as luck would have it - is also from her home town. He switches from singing love-songs to his silver-topped cane to singing love-songs to Farrell. Next, his sailor mate, Lucky (John Peterson), shows up, and he's even goofier and wetter behind the ears than Dick, so now there's someone to croon over Crowe. The two of them get it together in a lovely tap-song, "Choo-Choo Honeymoon". The only problem is the dragonish Mona Kent, the show's star, played (and sung) with luxuriant, egomaniacal excess by Kim Criswell. She wants Dick too. When the theatre is bulldozed, the show moves to the poop deck of a battleship, harboured on the Hudson. Criswell gets seasick, Farrell gets her break, the show's a hit, Farrell's a star, and the right couples head for the altar. "I'm just a simple girl," says Farrell. "And I'm just a simple guy," replies Gardiner. And this is just a simple show. Deceptively so. John Gardyne directs with a perfect sense of this comedy's wacky, unforced charm.

In Calamity Jane, which reaches London halfway through a national tour, we first see the redoubtable Gemma Craven, riding on the front of the Deadwood stagecoach shooting Sioux. After dispatching 30 of them (her estimate) she sings "The Deadwood Stage". Without wanting to be unduly PC about this, there comes a point when picking off 30 Indians, flashing the audience a gleaming smile and then launching into your opening number appears faintly Neanderthal.

Yes, this is a period piece, a 1950s version of the 1870s. But the shift in perceptions over the last 40 years has left the story adrift. The stage show (1961) is based on the Warner Bros film (1953), and Paul Kerryson's gimmicky production looks like a copy of a copy of the original staging. The Wild West resembles a children's toy set where the pieces never change: arrows sticking out of woodwork, swinging saloon-bar doors, glasses shot out of people's hands. Each time these cliches are recycled, we travel further and further from the 1870s and the Black Hills of Dakota.

Judging by Calamity Jane, the whole western genre needs reinventing for modern audiences. When sharpshooting Craven returns to her log cabin with her new friend, the aspiring actress Katie Brown (Grace Kinirons), her new friend decides that the log cabin - as fine an example of Log Brutalism as you could hope to see - needs "A Woman's Touch". In Paul Farnsworth's set, that means turning it into the equivalent of a south-coast boarding house. The whole issue of women in Calamity Jane is confusing (not just for the tomboyish Calamity). One minute there aren't any other women in town, the next minute half a dozen girls pile in to do a tap routine. Which stagecoach did they come in on? As Calamity's husband, Wild Bill Hickok, the lugubrious Stephen McGann looks as if he isn't quite wild enough to get thrown out of a slumber party. The show is noisy - in the wrong way. It's so heavily miked that we hear actors' voices from speakers on either side of the stage and not from where they're standing.

The last time I saw Adam Ant on stage, it was at the Lyceum, and he had a punk band. If you stood near the front you were covered in the spit aimed from those standing behind. Well, we all get older. The youthful Adam Ant only sings one song in Funeral Games, a stage adaptation of Joe Orton's 1966 teleplay, while instead of gobbing at him, a large section of the first-night audience sat there making notes.

In adapting Orton's teleplay, director Phil Willmott adds two devices. Nine actors dressed as Islington policemen re-enact the story. They sing Sixties songs. Neither adds anything substantive to a play that already feels strung out. Bette Bourne is creepily good as the oleaginous religious phoney, Pringle, a character who has found a new topicality, as he becomes an overnight celebrity when he is assumed to have murdered his wife. The bedridden Sylvester McCoy is a raddled, jittery ex-priest, and Aimi MacDonald, the tottering charitable blonde, Tessa. Only Adam Ant lacks the requisite buoyant cheek for the central Ortonesque role. Orton fans, however, won't be disappointed by the richly subversive exchanges that capture the point where faith and good manners overlap. McCoy explains that his wife was taken up to heaven: "In a fiery chariot. Driven by an angel." The ageing dollybird, MacDonald, corrects him. "What nonsense. Valerie would never accept a lift from a stranger."

The New Shakespeare Company opens its 1996 season in Regent's Park with The Comedy of Errors. Ian Talbot offers us a traditionally Italianate Ephesus, peopled by Feydeauesque characters, Carmenesque gypsies and safari-suited twin brothers who look as if they've stepped Out of Africa. Talbot's disappointingly easy-going production has the kind of good-humour that flattens the energy (the comic business, generally, is dire), while the sharper truths about split selves remain unexplored.

Finally, in The Power of the Dog at the Orange Tree, Ellen Dryden has written a brooding, complex portrait of female relationships that centres on Vivien (Joan Moon), a successful schoolteacher. She has a brilliant, difficult pupil, a mother in a wheelchair, a bullying aunt and a manipulative cousin. It's rare to see female relationships explored in this depth - even if, sometimes, this multifarious play becomes submerged in detail. Director Sam Walters evokes this acrid genteel world with characteristic precision.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 10.

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