Move over, Mr Darcy - Tom Jones is in town, exclaims the publicity for the new musical version of this great comic novel. Jane Austen can little have reckoned that a hero of hers would one day be considered in the same erotic league as Fielding's good-natured sexpot. But then she'd never had the advantage of seeing Colin Firth in a dripping wet shirt.
Composer George Stiles and lyricist Paul Leigh aren't making their first foray into 18th-century fiction. The same team's Moll Flanders at the York Theatre Royal won last year's British Regional Theatre award for best musical. I saw that show in one of its earlier manifestations in 1993 at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Looking back at what I wrote then, I find the virtues I admired in Moll are similar to those that appeal in Tom Jones.
Stiles's music for Moll was an attractive amalgam of the modern and the traditional, with its echoes of The Beggar's Opera and other contemporary airs. The adroit blending goes on here: during the farcical shenanigans at the overbooked Upton Arms, it's just as the programme promises, a case of the Keystone Cops meets Cosi fan Tutte. An essential ingredient of John Doyle's engaging caricature of a production is its skilfully rough- and-ready presentational style, with the cast expected not just to perform several roles, narrate, and function as a chorus, but to be their own band and play a variety of musical instruments while negotiating the twists of the plot and of the multi-level set.
The fact that the heroine is Sophia is no handicap to Paul Leighton, who links her name to just about every rhyme word but "dire" in Tom's tunefully plaintive love songs. Not that the witty, resourceful lyrics, so superior to anything you might find in Martin Guerre, need any indulgences in this department. Showy rhyming is only one of Leighton's skills. Wonderfully performed by Rebecca Wright's Lady Bellaston (a nymphomaniac done up like the wicked fairy in a ballet), the darkly acerbic song about the social advantages and the private cost of wearing a mask demonstrates his ability to develop complicated ideas in tightly knit, deceptively simple verse.
"The door of the room now flew open and, after pushing in her hoop sideways before her, entered Lady Bellaston." By introducing extracts like that from the novel as spoken stage directions, Doyle's adaptation keeps Fielding's authorial voice before us. It is true that the show does not offer an incisive reinterpretation of the novel, or even much of an interpretation, for that matter. What you get is "a racy swashbuckle" through the story, with the music adding texture to what otherwise might seem a rather bald precis.
As Tom, the versatile Jeremy Harrison fails to resist temptation with a fetching guilelessness before finally winning Emma Kershaw's sweet-voiced Sophia. It's the musical as much as the sexual prowess of Mr Harrison that impresses. Called on to play guitar, a mean double-bass, a phallic trombone, keyboards and percussion, he's a performer who, you feel, would have no trouble doing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as a one-man show.
n Ends Sat (booking: 01904 623568)
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