Southwark Playhouse, London
Book by Blake Edwards
Music by Henry Mancini
Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Directed by Thom Southerland
Yet again, the Southwark Playhouse demonstrates that whilst it may be an off West End venue underneath London Bridge station, it continues to remain a showcase of the very best of London’s performing talent, with Thom Southerland’s production of Victor Victoria.
1982 saw the release of Blake Edward’s movie of this story, ( itself based on a 1933 German tale ), written by Edwards largely as a vehicle for his wife Julie Andrews. Scored by Leslie Bricusse, whilst the film received some acclaim, it took 14 years before making the transition on to a Broadway stage, where it ran for a further 2.
The story is novel but ultimately shallow – struggling female singer discovered by an opportunistic gay actor, also down on his luck, who presents her as a man who pretends to be a woman and all set against a modicum of farce and some clichéd caricatures of homosexuals and hoodlums. The tale would not survive on a modern West End stage, but in the intimacy of the traverse staging of the theatre’s Vault, it achieves a life that is breathtaking if only for the array of excellence that Southerland has assembled.
Anna Francolini as Victoria, who in turn performs both the title characters, is first encountered as an impoverished Parisian singer eking out survival. Whilst the strength of this show is derived from an excellent company performance, Francolini is one of the two lynch pins that power the production. Her poise and vocal range are delightful, and her slender physique lends plausibility to the remarkable journeys of transformation that she endures. Whilst her performance ( or more likely, the story's structure ) fails to tug the heart strings, Francolini enchants with her powerful delivery and gamine beauty. For those who can recall Edward’s movie, Miss Francolini's first appearance as “Victor” is a spine-tingling moment, faultlessly re-imaging the skill of Julie Andrews’ creation. Her costumes are outstanding and credit must also go to wig mistress Jessica Kell.
Richard Dempsey is Toddy, Victoria’s befriender and most loyal promoter and he is a delight to watch. Camp but always commanding and in control, Dempsey and Francolini are worth the ticket price alone. Exquisite acting, perfect voice and in the final scene a costume of extravagant beauty.
These two leads are supported by a cast that to a man (or woman), all excel. Kate Nelson’s gorgeously dumb blond and Michael Cotton’s bodyguard with a secret, are but two examples of an acting company that not only set the scene with their style, but also serve to flesh out their predominantly two-dimensional characters with a detail that describes both time and place, on a stage where Martin Thomas’ suggestive design is evocative but, of necessity, minimal.
Joseph Atkins' 8 piece orchestra deliver numbers that are at times almost “big-band” and their interpretations of Mancini’s melodies are a delight. Andrew Johnson’s sound design is skilfully balanced for the complex acoustics of this un-conventional venue.
The choreography of Lee Proud stuns again, with ensemble numbers and tap routines that dazzle and bear more than an occasional nod to the seductive nightclub style of Bob Fosse. Proud’s vision adds real value to the production whilst Howard Hudson’s lighting transforms the Vault from Paris to Chicago and back again . There are occasional moments when a lead performer drifts out of the spotlight mid-song and this can be a distraction. The production's impact would be modestly improved with a follow-spot placed at each end of the traverse.
With Southerland, in this their third musical pairing, Danielle Tarento has formed a creative duo that echoes the partnership of Cameron Mackintosh and Trevor Nunn. Tarento's productions continue to be staged with an attention to detail and a commitment to outstanding production values that cannot be faulted. Whilst the story may be dated, this show offers a close-up view of musical theatre perfection in performance with singing, dancing and acting that is amongst the best that this city can offer.
Runs to 15 December