Happy End, Central Space Theatre, London

A show in need of salvation

Rhoda Koenig
Friday 07 February 2014 05:01
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Take a romance between a big-city sharpster and a Salvation Army lass, set it to music with a chorus of comical gangsters, and what have you got? No, not Guys and Dolls necessarily. With this musical about Hallelujah Lil, "the saint of South Canal Street," and Chicago hoodlum Bill Cracker, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht hoped to repeat their success of the year before (The Threepenny Opera). But, despite a score that included the raucous "Bilbao Song" and the ravishing "Surabaya Johnny"', the play's anti-capitalist satire so antagonised critics and audience in September 1929 that it was taken off after two days. (If only they had waited a few weeks.) Though its best songs have, of course, had a life of their own, Happy End was plundered by its creators for their future shows, making superfluous a work that always suffered from a book that Michael Feingold, author of this adaptation, calls "a desperately casual makeshift".

A production of this show in a King's Cross bar whose toilet door seems never to have possessed a lock, appeared to promise just the right atmosphere, but seediness was a less prominent note than governmental concern, in the form of a loudly whirring ventilator. What should have been the prevailing mood of sardonic cynicism was undermined from the beginning by having members of the Sally Army, along with a bumptious gangster, stand outside the theatre to welcome us in.

It was also softened by one's concern for the actors, who had to wait on the pavement to make an entrance through the fire doors – getting rained on is the least one risks in this neighbourhood. There were more traditional problems, as well, with Daniel Ghossain's staging: Most of the action took place at the bar, so that a screen on the opposite wall, showing mordant silent-film-style titles ("Bill – his tough interior conceals a heart of stone") frequently played to the audience's backs.

Feingold may have improved the book, but it's still flimsy, even by the standards of Twenties musicals, with disconcertingly abrupt changes of both soft and stony hearts. At the end, the once shocking aphorism "Robbing a bank is no crime compared to owning one" sounds, with so little context, merely flippant.

The undisputed glory of this show, Kurt Weill's music, sadly also made little impression, Tracy Wiles's small, tight voice lacks the assured, seductive sound needed for Lil's big ballads; even in this tiny space, the vocalising of other cast members (apart from Alasdair Harvey, as Bill, who has too little to do) is weak, the lyrics often unintelligible.

As a slinky über-criminal, Abigail Canton is amusingly sinister, and Anna Scaife is a sweetly goofy soul-saving sister. But the feel of low-life Chicago or Berlin eludes this casual, if not desperate, show.

To 8 June (0207-278 3294)

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