Film adaptations continue to spill into Theatreland like reams of celluloid from some lunatic projector. There’s The Bodyguard approach – do it big, do it bold, give nerry a fuck. The Full Monty approach – do it with plenty of heart and cross your fingers that you’re the next Billy Elliot. Then there’s the Fatal Attraction approach, where you invite Sir Trevor round to heap infamy onto the reputation of his distinctly smudgy late-career.
Happily, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, hitting the West End a decade after its Broadway debut, is more like Betty Blue Eyes – a beloved film bolstered with genuinely winning songs and a weather-eye on its own silliness. It might lack some of Betty’s loveable generosity, but its combination of crowd-pleasing cockiness and brilliant comic performances should shield it from a premature shuttering.
Everyone keeps saying that the original film, a 1988 Steve Martin vehicle driven by Michael Caine, is a classic, and I suppose it probably is, though in the distinctly Sunday Afternoon on ITV vein. Its plot of two warring conmen, one American and vulgar, the other British and classy, has been transposed more or less intact into Jeffrey Lane’s book, though its humour has wisely been updated with a sprinkling of post-modern yucks and a lighter, breezier tone.
There’s a subplot involving a romance between corrupt official Andre (John Marquez) and Muriel, (Samantha Bond) a former conquest of suave Lawrence (Robert Lindsay), that’s an obvious sop to conventional musical structuring, but elsewhere it’s largely the same shtick. Silly foreign accents, wheelchair-based slapstick routines and a Calvary of triple-crossings. It’s not very PC, but it doesn’t really give a shit and it’s slyly skewed and consistently funny enough to get away with it.
Lane’s book has a wicked time with the tropes of Broadway (or the West End) with one scene involving a balcony hydraulically descending at the conclusion of a duet between Marquez and Bond damn near bringing down the house. From a singing usherette to a hatful of nods and winks to recent musical smashes, it’s smart without being insufferably smart-arsed, and feels perfectly in keeping with the winking hoodwinkery of the source material.
David Yazbek may not have written a true stonker, though the prairie-baked ‘Oklahoma?’ comes close, but his score is a consistent pleasure and his lyrics every bit the match for Lane’s book. ‘Give Them What They Want’ and ‘Dirty Rotten Number’ revel in Lawrence’s morning-suited villainy, ‘Like Zis/Like Zat’ is a smashing romantic duet and ‘Rüffhousin’ Mit Shüffhausen’ transforms one of the film’s funniest moments into an equally hilarious musical highlight. One of the film’s other peaks, the squirmy Ruprecht scene, is a little let down by ‘All About Ruprecht’, but it’s still a damn funny number that’s a great vehicle for Rufus Hound’s surprisingly effective take on the Steve Martin role.
Lindsay and Hound make a great team, and one of the productions most infectiously joyous aspects is just what a fantastic time they seem to be having. The play’s constant prodding at the fourth wall (if not outright chit-chatting with the conductor) allow plenty of the pair’s apparently genuine bubbliness to show through, and Lindsay in particular is glowing. Neither he nor Hound are slaves to their illustrious forebears, and though Hound doesn’t quite have Martin’s innate timing, his slovenly, brash Freddy is a brilliant foil for Lindsay’s mahogany cool.
Katherine Kingsley is the only cast member capable of really thermonuclear belting, but she suffers at times from the overstretched character of ‘soap-queen’ Christine Colgate. Ironically, Bond gets much the better hand in her more or less entirely invented character: perfectly poised and delightfully bawdy at the same time.
It all takes place on a flawless set from Peter McKintosh, which shifts, descends and folds like a super-lux hotel on the dance floor. It also doubles as a surprising comic foil thanks to some nifty work from director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. And speaking of the choreography…well, a hotel setting always raises hopes of a few tap-dancing bellboys and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels doesn’t disappoint on this front. Love it.
It’s a fantastic night out, but unlike the glittering smile of Lindsay’s sharp operator, there’s nothing illusory about the charms of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.