At nearly three hours long, and with a set as rickety as its gender politics, Promises, Promises is a hard slog. Yes, it’s set in 1962, but the paper-thin plot and flat characters make it hard to see why this show has been revived. Bronagh Lagan’s production feels like it unfolds in real-time, so slowly do the wheels turn. It lacks the glamour of something like Mad Men, which foregrounds the sexism of the era and does interesting things with the female characters. Here, we get a parade of wriggling sexpots who barely open their mouths.
Gabriel Vick is likeable enough as Chuck Baxter, an ambitious young man who gains promotion by allowing his myriad middle-aged superiors to use his apartment for their extra-marital dalliances. Chuck is a nice guy, yearning after Daisy Maywood’s sweet Fran, who in turn is in love with the unpleasant, married Sheldrake. And, um, that’s it. That’s the whole plot.
Unless you happen to feel sorry for men who want to stay married while also being able to fuck their secretaries, the show is severely lacking in any emotional heft. Chuck is inconvenienced by his bosses using his apartment, and catches a cold. The philandering men have a whole song (twice!), Where Can You Take a Girl?, about how difficult it is to find somewhere to have sex without their wives finding out. The heart bleeds, doesn’t it?
This means that Maywood’s Fran is not given any room to show depth of feeling for Paul Robinson’s garbled Sheldrake, so that her devastation when he leaves her comes out of nowhere. She takes an overdose and is saved by John Guerrasio’s cartoonish Dr Dreyfuss. This leads to the incredibly poor-taste number A Young Pretty Girl Like You, which is essentially two men bullying a depressed and vulnerable woman into smiling for them. It’s the musical equivalent of shouting “cheer up, darling” out a car window, at someone who’s just tried to kill themselves.
The fact that every woman on stage (except Maywood) plays at least three characters should give you some idea of how women are treated. They are interchangeable secretaries, waitresses, lovers, get virtually no lines, and are backgrounded so much that they get roped in as scene changers, too. The opening of Act 2 features a marvellous turn from Alex Young as the louche Marge, determined to seduce Chuck. It’s far and away the best scene in the production, and shows how much more Young has to give than the rest of her dreary roles allow.
The music is another let down. Apart from I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, which is rendered very sweetly by Vick and Maywood, the songs are so similar that they blur into one. Simon Wells’ costumes evoke the swinging sixties beautifully, but the rest of the production doesn’t capitalise on that energy. Dialogue that should be quick-fire is tedious, and the whole production is lacklustre. Cressida Carré does her best to inject some pizzazz, but her choreography is stifled by the tiny playing space.
With no critique or comment on the astonishing sexism, and little plot or character development, Promises, Promises is a tedious and jarring three hours.
Promises, Promises is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 18th February 2017. Click here for more details.