Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 23 November 2011

Burlesque

Jermyn Street Theatre ⋄ 16th November - 18th December 2011

Adam Meggido’s McCarthy musical.

Tracey Sinclair

It’s 1952, and against the backdrop of conflict in Korea, the fear of Communism is very real in America, with the McCarthy witch-hunts in full flow. It is this fertile territory which is mined by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles’ new musical, and if the result is occasionally derivative and generally far tamer and less transgressive than a show purporting to be about burlesque should be, the production still has much to recommend it.

The story revolves around Johnny Reno (Jon-Paul Hevey), a blacklisted comedian reduced to scratching a living in fading burlesque venues like the Palace as he fights off the professional attentions of Alex Bartram’s implacable government agent: in fact, given this focus, calling the piece Burlesque is a slight misnomer, presumably because ‘Washed Up Comic Crumbles Under FBI Pressure’ wouldn’t fit on the poster, and would be less of an excuse to adorn it with a half-naked woman. Which is a shame, because while the show conjures nicely the slightly seedy and surprisingly mundane reality behind the onstage glitz – helped enormously by Martin Thomas’ cramped dressing room set and the intimacy of the Jermyn Street venue – the overlong first half could have done with a bit more of the sexiness and glamour the title suggests. It’s only in the second half we see the girls come into their own, as a sort of semi-clad Greek Chorus to Reno’s betrayal; for much of the first half they are simply lolling around in their dressing gowns, fretting about their men.

Outside of Reno’s dilemma, the rest of the story feels underpowered. There are plenty of acerbic laughs to be had from the power play between Palace owner Freddie Le Roy and his long-term business partner, ex-showgirl Lula (the delightfully world-weary Linal Half and Buster Skeggs), as they fight to save the ailing venue, and Freddie distracts himself by wooing a gold-digging stripper (the pleasingly calculating Victoria Serra). Reno’s romance with Alicia Davies’ Honey Hogan is never particularly convincing, especially compared to his more fleshed out relationship with his alcoholic, gay comedy partner Rags Ryan (a sympathetic Chris Holland), whose loyalty to Reno is hinted at being more than just professional. More perniciously, for a show keen to point out the evils of bigotry, it is all too content to trot out the tired old stereotypes: Sinead Mathias’ Georgia may be ‘passing’ as Italian but she and boyfriend Saul (Jeremiah Harris-Ward) are lazily painted as long-suffering black woman and her feckless, commitment-shy boyfriend, the latter seemingly having little to do but occasionally pop up and clunkily remind the white characters that, however bad they have it, black people are worse off, and the so-called Communists’ treatment by the Government is nothing compared to the institutionalized racism faced by the nation’s black population.

The songs, on the whole, are passable rather than memorable, with the standard of the singing mixed. The comic numbers fare best, with standouts being ‘Rags’ and Johnny’s ‘Ladies Love a Novelist’, and Lula’s ode to Freddie’s doomed womanizing, ‘It’s Time to Give Up the Girls.’ The first act finale, Luck of the Irish, is also a barnstormer. Perhaps unavoidably – given the familiarity of the backstage set-up – the show sometimes feels less like a new musical than a collection of old ones put together (this isn’t helped by inclusion of the comedians’ number Leave ‘em Laughing, which feels like someone was tasked to rewrite Make ‘Em Laugh from Singing in the Rain), and although serious at its core, it is most engaging when bleakly comic, the deadpan cynicism of Freddie and Lula a nice counterpoint to Johnny’s self-conscious seriousness. Hevey ably balances the comedian’s on-stage bravado with his off-stage self-doubt, but as the pressure mounts he at times veers close to histrionics. Still, in these ‘Occupy Wall Street’ times, Johnny’s struggle against an unjust authority feels vivid and relevant, a timely testimony to personal integrity and the importance of taking a stand, and the show is brave enough to eschew a completely happy ending, even if the surprisingly downbeat finale does feel a little flat.

It’s perhaps understandable that, directing his own piece, Adam Meggido gives it too much leeway, but a tighter pace and a little less hand-wringing  would make for a sexier, punchier show.

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Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Burlesque Show Info


Directed by Adam Meggido

Written by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles

Cast includes Linal Haft, Buster Skeggs, Chris Holland, Jon-Paul Hevey, Alicia Davies, Sinead Mathias, Victoria Serra, Alex Bartram, Jeremiah Harris-Ward

Link http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

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