Sunday 11 August 2013

Pipe Dream

Union Theatre, London


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the books Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Kieran Brown and Charlotte Scott

In a rare move at her Union Theatre, Sasha Regan steps up from producing to directing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream and as it turns out, she's actually rather good. It's a quirky show, never before seen on this side of the Atlantic and with the talented writing duo having focused on the USA's eastern seaboard with Carousel and then the Dust Bowl with Oklahoma!, Pipe Dream sees their creative gaze move westward to California's Monterey on the Pacific coast.

The show's story is set amongst a glorious ensemble of bums and whores and it achieves what R&H do best, telling of a slice of American life that celebrates the emergence of an unlikely love between Doc and Suzy. Kieran Brown is Doc, an academic marine biologist whose passion is studying the sea creatures washed up in the city's coastal tide-pools. Charlotte Scott plays Suzy, a girl who arrives in town penniless and homeless but who nonetheless elects to preserve her dignity by dwelling in a drain pipe, rather than accept the offer of a roof over her head in exchange for punters in her bed at the town's brothel. Both Brown and Scott are accomplished West End performers who bring talent and depth to their roles but both of them also need to remember that the Union is unmic'd. They need to give just a little more pizazz to their performances to truly sizzle as the shows leads.

Steaming sultrily as the brothel's Madam, (curiously named Fauna) is Virge Gilchrist. It’s an all too rare appearance from this wonderfully voiced actress who knows just how to spice up her sleazy position without once becoming sordid. Her number accompanied by her girls, The Happiest House On The Block, is as witty and as entertaining as Les Mis' Lovely Ladies but happily without that song's sad conclusion. 

Virge Gilchrist and her girls

David Haydn as the senior bum of the piece, Mac, gives his all in a spicy performance that drips with gusto. When, as a bus-driver, he leads his band of reprobates in The Lopsided Bus, there could almost be a glint of a wild eyed Freddy Kruger in the way he grips his imaginary steering wheel. Lovely work too from Nick Martland as gentle giant Hazel, a guy with learning difficulties who is played with clever and witty sensitivity rather than for cheap laughs and a final nod to Christopher Connor, Rebecca Fennelly and Georgie Burdett whose lovely ballet work and eye-watering splits are a further reminder of just how good the talent is that can be found in London's fringe theatre.

Lizzi Gee's choreography is imaginative and uses the Union space with flair. Her big numbers are incredibly ambitious, though a little more polished drilling of her company would not go amiss. The Party That We're Gonna Have Tomorrow Night in particular has distinct echoes of Oklahoma!'s wonderful Kansas City, pulsing with wit, rhythm and tempo. Credit also to Christopher Peake's band who take these virtually unknown numbers and give them a beautiful musical life.

The simply designed set captures the poverty of Steinbeck's Cannery Row. A lot is left to our imagination, but Elle Rose-Hughes has used light, shadow and slatted timber brilliantly, to create a fabulous effect on a low budget.

This is not one of Broadway's grander shows. No family of seven cute kids to be found on this stage, nor songs that we know inside out. Rather this is a fine and (for London at least) freshly innovative piece of musical theatre. Gimmick free and bursting with talent, it's the most imaginative Rodgers and Hammerstein show in town.

Runs until 31st August

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