Southwark Playhouse, London
Book by Diane Samuels
Music & lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert
Directed by Sam Buntrock
The A-Z Of Mrs P is a charming show that tells of the birth of London's A-Z, in song. For those who remember navigating the city before the digital age, the eponymous book was everywhere and even today its graphics still power many online map sites.
The human tale behind the map is a grand fable. Hungarian emigre Alexander Gross having mapped New York, saw the potential in similarly charting the streets of London. Marrying local girl Bella, it was their artist daughter Phyllis who was to step up to the challenge of recording the capital's streets and mind-bogglingly, indexing them too. We see Gross as an outwardly callous man. A visionary maybe but a selfish womaniser, ruthlessly focused on profit. When his marriage collapses he retuns to America as Bella loses her mind and against this turmoil, Phyllis remains steadfast, capturing the streets of her Lovely London Town (a gorgeous song) and with the help of a sage draughtsman, creating the iconic guide. Struggling with huge family pressures, the A-Z is to prove not not only her guide, but also the purpose to her life.
Isy Suttie of television shows Peep Show and Shameless is Phyllis, the Mrs P (for Pearsall) of the title. Embodying this eccentric yet tenacious and compassionate woman, Suttie's acting is on point throughout, well reflecting a woman who is to witness her mother's mental collapse as well as endure her father's cruel commercial envy. A plane crash was to cripple Phyllis in her later years and Suttie subtly evokes the onset of frailty, played out through sensitivity rather than stereotype. The show however does bear a hint of “stunt-casting”. This is the actress’ brave debut into musical theatre and one cannot help but wonder if the producers selected her (in part) on the strength of her significant Twitter following, rather than musical ability. Suttie is not helped by the show's sprawling structure which at times demands an A-Z of its own. The narrative jumps distractingly in and out of flashback and its nascent flaws demand the spine-tingling vocal impact of an established musical theatre leading lady, one that is able to pull the audience along with an inspirational performance however shaky the plot may be at times.
Whilst the fable may not be fabulous, many performances are. Called upon to play yet another flamboyant European, Michael Matus is Alexander. Assured throughout, Matus is a vocal Rolls Royce of his generation. He cruises smoothly through the lower ranges of his role, yet can effortlessly shift through the gears, producing a powerful and when necessary, menacing sound that fills the traverse theatre. He deftly tackles the paradox of his paternal love for Phyllis conflicting with his profound resentment and envy of her commercial flair. Frances Ruffelle plays the fragile and damaged Bella. Vocally her distinctive tone and timbre is well suited to the troubled woman and her transition from coquettish Nippy, to worn-down wife is executed perfectly. Stuart Matthew Price charms as Phyllis' brother Tony, but not for the first time we find that this beautifully voiced actor is barely given a song to sing.
All of the ensemble shine, with veteran Sidney Livingstone in particular providing a range of charming cameos, never more delightful than as kindly draughtsman Mr Fountain, whilst Sarah Earnshaw deploys her sharply honed West End skills in a range of roles.
The A-Z Of Mrs P is beautifully intentioned and homely, but ever so slightly muddled. Herbert has composed a handful of enchanting melodies, though her lyrics and rhyme could be sharper. Nick Winston's movement work cleverly captures a spirit of London together with key events of the city’s 20th century history, whilst Klara Zeiglerova's set deploys numerous front doors and countless suspended curios, to suggest the Herculean task that Pearsall faced. Unquestionably innovative theatre, with moments of stunning stagecraft.
Runs until 29th March
Picture by Jane Hobson