Arts: High kicks and class in a women's jail

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First Night: Chicago Adelphi Theatre, London

Review by David Lister

The obituaries for the West End musical have been premature. Last night saw the return of the feelgood show, complete with a great score, first class performances and ticket touts doing a brisk trade outside. It was almost like old times.

Perhaps, as the showbiz cliche has it, timing is everything. Chicago is not a new show. It actually first appeared in 1975, but was quickly overshadowed by A Chorus Line, and made few waves. But now, after a year which has seen a lack of blockbuster musicals and a need for a feelgood factor, this revival helped by a massive marketing campaign, has come just at the right moment.

Some of the publicity would leave you wondering if this was a pleasant comedy musical (it is) or a satirical, academic treatise on Chicago mob life in the twenties, women's prisons and the O.J. Simpson trial. (it isn't). Mind you, in the court scene when one of the murderesses was on trial and seduced the jury into finding her not guilty as cheerleaders with pom poms sang in delight, one did have fleeting memories of O.J.

The musical, by Fred Ebb and John Kander, who also composed Cabaret, is set in a women's prison, looking rather more like a night club, and is about a group of murderesses/adulteresses who get song and dance bookings outside as their criminal notoriety rises. After garnering a clutch of Tony awards on Broadway, there were fears that the British version, led by the epitome of suburban Englishness, Ruthie Henshall, could come unstuck.

Such fears were unfounded. Miss Henshall as killer turned singer Roxie Hart is a revelation, cool and sexy with a beautiful voice matched by assured comic timing. "I started fooling around," she confides to the audience. "Then I started screwing around, which is fooling around without dinner." Her rival in the show is played by Ute Lemper, internationally famous for her smoky renditions of Kurt Weill. As she and Henshall trade high kicks with the rest of the cast, the stage a mass of legs and cleavage, this is more like a night at the Folies Bergeres than a show ostensibly set in a prison.

Meg Johnson, who plays the matron Mama, may not be well enough known to get her name above the titles, but she brings an eyecatching suavete to the role and her lament with Lemper for a golden age when there was Class was one of the evening's showstoppers.

There was an ovation too for Henry Goodman, a wonderful piece of casting as Mr fix-it lawyer Billy Flynn - "I don't want to blow my own horn but if Jesus had lived in Chicago and had $5,000, things would have turned out very differently." The scene where he runs a press conference with Henshall on his knee mouthing the words as he sings them ventriloquist style, is a comic highlight, though why people around me murmured the name Max Clifford I can't imagine.

There is one major caveat on a highly enjoyable night out. For some reason the orchestra is on the stage, taking up more than half of the space, leaving the action in front of it looking cramped and occasionally more like a concert rendition of a musical. That leaves one thinking the show could have been even better given the scope of a full stage.

But this did not seem to bother the celebrity audience, including Lord and Lady Archer, Sir Peter Hall, Marie Helvin and Max Bygraves. From the Adelphi they moved on to a themed party at a studio in Kings Cross, sharing the feelgood factor with audience, cast and ticket touts.