When I heard Indecent Proposal was being turned into a musical I had ideas of something wildly camp with lots of jazz hands and razzle-dazzle. This production’s more sincere approach does well to keep the nuances of the discussion, and the central relationship more realistic. Not as much fun though…
Based on Jack Engelhard’s novel by the same name, we’re presented with a moral dilemma: Given the right price, can money actually buy anything and everything? Rebecca (Lizzy Connolly) and Jonny (Norman Bowman) are deeply and completely committed. Rebecca, having been married to a wealthy man previously, is happy to be poor in possessions but rich in love. Jonny, on the other hand, has a patchwork of badly paid singing gigs that work him to the bone and a daughter from a previous marriage who he’s unable to provide for sufficiently. One night, while Jonny performs at a casino bar, Rebecca, sitting in the audience, is propositioned by multimillionaire Larry Harris in exchange for $1 million, and it tears the couple apart.
It’s an interesting quandary, the consideration of one night of meaningless sex setting you and your partner up for life. But does it warrant a two-hour slushy song-fest? The story was, of course, made famous by the ‘93 film starring Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Robert Redford. But, despite the box office cleaning up with a tidy $267 million, it’s hardly anyone’s favourite movie these days, as Natasha Tripney points out in her i newspaper article on the new musical. She also argues that it seems a bit passe to have yet another story about buying a woman, what with Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge currently taking to the West End too. I tend to agree: despite composer Dylan Shlosberg and writer Michael Conley working fairly hard to modernise the story, it’s still very much about putting a price on a woman’s body, and how we judge her for using her sexuality, or indeed not using it.
Connolly and Bowman’s central relationship has the energy of a couple licking each other’s faces on the bus – no-one wants to see that. Their chemistry does seem authentic though. Whilst both clearly have strong voices, neither shines especially in their singing roles. Both are at their best when they’re belting, but the quieter moments are slightly lacking in control. It’s a lot to ask of someone to give a thoughtful and believable performance while also singing though, and Connolly’s performance, in particular, is full of contemporary nuance, exploring her agency while rejecting the idea that she is a ‘slut’ or weak.
Jonny’s singing in a band means there aren’t too many cringey random bursts of song. Instead, most of the music is discreetly explained by way of a genuine performance in the story. The band leader, Annie (Jacqueline Dankworth) is the secret star of the show. She’s the only one whose funny lines properly land, and her voice is billowing and chocolatey. Properly attired for a casino band, she wears sequins, heels, and chunky jewellery. Standing beside her on stage, Jonny wears blue jeans, brown boots, and a t-shirt, no doubt in stark contrast to Mr. Harris’ sharp expensive suits. But they’ve gone too far in the comparison, and Jonny looks so out of place as to not be believable.
It’s always a pleasure to have a live band, and all the more so when you can see them. The Southwark often excels in this department and they’ve done it again, with a tight four-piece led by Connor Going. The music isn’t to my taste- it’s very earnest with lots of big top notes while gazing longingly into wide eyes- but it’ll do. And the big number, Next to Nothing, is a bit of an earworm.
There is nothing particularly wrong with Shlosberg and Conley’s musical interpretation of Indecent Proposal. The score is mostly forgettable but inoffensive, the performances fairly believable, and the staging adequate. But I’m just not sure if we needed it.
Indecent Proposal is on at Southwark Playhouse until 27th November 2021. More info and tickets here.