St James Studio, London
Music & lyrics by Scott Evan Davis
Conceived & directed by Simon Greiff
In another display of fine production values, the fledgling United Theatrical team of Stuart Matthew Price and James Yeoburn have assembled a classy quartet to premiere Scott Evan Davis' new show.
Empty picture frames adorn the St James' basement stage, signalling that whilst appearances (frames) may be gilded, what lies beneath often isn't. Early on we find fourty-something Elizabeth discovering hubby Harry's infidelity. As son Josh agonises over the fear of mom leaving home, the mistress-young-enough-to-be-Harry's-daughter Ellie, swoons over her lover's apparent perfections. Throughout, Simon Greiff directs his company with a precise clarity.
Helen Hobson gives a beautifully weighted Elisabeth. Singing from the book, the script she held was barely noticeable. It is a mark of the woman that her delivery was exquisitely nuanced, either as caring mother or betrayed wife. She gives fabulous vocals and a faultless presence.
Jerome Pradon is her greying deceitful spouse. Again, a flawless performance, though it is in his role that the cracks in Davis' writing start to emerge with his guilty husband/dad character barely given an opportunity to crawl out of cliched predictability.
Josh is played by a mellifluous Joel Harper-Jackson. The young man's voice has a divine range and a fabulous belt and it is a mark of his talent that he can convince in songs that pitch him from aged 7 through to a much older young man struggling with his sexuality. He too however is bogged down by lyrics that are sometimes eye-rollingly awful. "Knowing who I was, Has taught me who I am" is a line that should never have made it past an early workshop.
As coquettish Ellie, the outstanding Charlotte Wakefield again shows why she was up for an Olivier earlier this year (coincidentally nominated for a Maria that played against Helen Hobson's Mother Abbess in the Open Air's Sound of Music). Amongst the best of her generation Wakefield dances her way through the show, each number a distinct and polished example of acting through song. A youthful audience filled the theatre (an impressive achievement on a sunny Sunday afternoon) and today's musical theatre students would do well to note the professionalism and excellence that Wakefield brings to all her roles.
Colin Billing's piano work with Sarah Bowler on cello bring a passion to the afternoon's accompaniment, though whilst all the tunes are superbly played, few are memorable.
In a curious irony, the show lives up to the pretext it purports to argue. The cast and creatives are glitteringly top-notch but scratch this show's surface and there is very little to stir the soul. Picture Perfect is a middling book about mediocre folk. Davis needs to inject more sparkling satire that lifts his lyrics above a paltry attempt at humour referencing human vices. Where Sondheim and Schwartz possess a brilliance that either tickles ribs or bites at one’s psyche, too much “new writing” (with Dougal Irvine and Scott Alan being notable exceptions) lacks the wit of these wordsmiths. On this showing, Picture Perfect remains a work in progress. Remove the cliche and there may yet be a deeply moving show waiting to emerge.