While the squeaky-clean von Trapps sing their hearts in out in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular musical The Sound of Music at the Open Air Theatre, the sleazier Pipe Dream (1955), one of the runts of their litter, is currently receiving its British premiere in Southwark’s Union Theatre. This could make for an interesting case of compare-and-contrast or unfortunate timing. Based on John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday the result is neither particularly charming nor dramatically satisfying. The original run of 246 performances (the shortest of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show) doesn’t seem bad at all considering the thinness of the material, which feels stretched to its limits in Sasha Regan’s lively chamber production.
The show is set in a run-down coastal village in northern California (like Carousel on the opposite coast) inhabited by a bunch of cheerful outcasts who trip along quite contentedly in the Palace Flophouse and local brothel. Amidst all the drinking and whoring, the local wise guy, marine biologist Doc, works on his study of the habits of starfish, creatures that might be the key to understanding humanity.
58 years on from the premiere, Regan is free from having to skirt around what goes on in the best little whorehouse in Monterey. In order to make the heroine less of a fallen woman, brothel madam Fauna (an authoritative Virge Gilchrist) takes the doe-eyed delinquent Suzy in out of the goodness of her heart despite Suzy’s not having what it takes to join the profession. It isn’t true that Hammerstein avoided sexuality in his work: Oklahoma! is full of double entendres and the sexual charge between Billy and Julie is the driving force of Carousel. The depiction of sex without love, however, was beyond his comfort zone and the feeble innuendo makes for a very dated and sentimentalised depiction of prostitution.
The love story is bit of a damp squid (sic). Doc and Suzy’s tentative romance is motivated by Fauna, eager to see one of her girls make a respectable marriage, rather than any spark between them. Kieran Brown plays Doc, an unusually passive leading man whom we’re supposed to believe is a reformed lothario, with a geeky charm, and Charlotte Scott acquits herself well as the gauche, plain-speaking Suzy.
Disappointingly, the score isn’t sung very clearly and several cast members have an annoying habit of singing through their teeth. The best songs are ‘Everybody’s Got a Home But Me’, ‘The Man I Used to Be’ and ‘Sweet Thursday’. ‘The Happiest House on the Block’, devised around the bordello’s Christmas card, leaves a sour aftertaste (that kind of coyness really didn’t suit Rodgers and Hammerstein) and the ‘Snow White’ skit is as silly as silly can be, as is the tedious subplot involving a raffle in order to raise money for a microscope for Doc.
It might have been preferable to remain in ignorance about Pipe Dream but curiosity was always going to get the better of this completist. No one is perfect and a dud like this doesn’t detract from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s true masterpieces a jot. When fringe theatres eventually exhaust the archive of lesser-known musicals, let’s just hope there’s some good new work to fill their place.