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Promises Promises (Southwark Playhouse)

February 15, 2017

Seen at the afternoon performance on 11th February 2017.

After the relaxed pleasure of “Close To You” in the West End, and the inestimable joy of seeing the Great Man himself in concert at the Festival Hall last July, I was keen to see his only stage musical – and grateful as ever to Southwark Playhouse for its policy of playing shows London has rarely, if ever, seen, in as full a production as space and budgets allow.

In that department, this is no exception. Simon Wells (with help from Ollie Last) gives us a versatile office and restaurant on wheels, plus a glide-in apartment, furnished “in period” as best they can (Chuck’s Apartment gets BBC2, according to the listings magazine by his telephone, interestingly). Costumes and style of the times are perfect, too, and Ben M Rogers gives us helpful – sometimes humorous – scene setting projections.

There’s an outstanding performance by John Guerrasio as Dr Dreyfuss too. The man (who uncannily resembles my old history teacher, weirdly) saves the entire show with an hilarious delivery and great acting style in the second half.

For this is a show that works against the best efforts of the cast. A thin story – of a man who loans his apartment out to randy co-workers, and pines for one co-worker he can’t get – is sprawling and repetitive in the first half, and only springs to life when the focus narrows, as it should on Chuck (Gabriel Vick) and object of desire Fran (Daisy Maywood).

They make the most of duet “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and do produce a fairly convincing happy ending. Trouble is, they have to get through act one first. Director Bronagh Lagan opts for a cinematic approach, complete with “freeze frames” that kill audience empathy stone dead as nothing connects as a stage (rather than this screen) effort should.

With a far looser hand on the tiller in the frenetic second half, suddenly the warmth begins to appear – a nod to Alex Young, whose drunken Marge had to be rescued by a member of the front row – as we spend more time on fewer characters and the set-up develops.

The score, sadly, is as sub-standard as the book. A notable injection of a well-known Bacharach number props up the first half, but really, would the show have suffered losing “Turky Lurky Time” (outside of giving Emily Squibb, Natalie Moore-Williams and Claire Doyle a chance to prove they can entertain)?.

Almost 3 hours long, and it feels it, alas. Fifty years ago, this show was revolutionary. Now, it isn’t strong enough to be a classic, but this revival proves that there could be a better show to be had – if anyone were brave enough to trim the script and raid Mr B’s back catalogue.

One revival in need of a revisical, I feel.

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