Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 5 November 2012

Victor/Victoria

Southwark Playhouse ⋄ 25th October - 1st December 2012

Cross-dressed to kill.

Tracey Sinclair

Following its successful production of I Am A Camera, Southwark Playhouse returns to the Europe of the 1930s with a new version of the Blake Edwards/Henry Mancini musical Victor/Victoria. Though the material here is far lighter – the long shadow of the Nazis has yet to darken Paris in ’34 – Thom Southerland’s fresh new production manages brings a nice slick of seediness to all the sexual shenanigans.

The story of a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman (do keep up), this is best remembered from Edwards’ 1982 movie, starring his wife Julie Andrews as the eponymous singer, wooed by a confused James Garner. It can’t be easy taking on a role made famous by one of the world’s most beloved musical actresses, but Anna Francolini does a splendid job. There is definitely something of Andrews in her voice and manner, and she also conjures up that ‘prim posh girl with a naughty side’ that Andrews herself is so good at.

Petite and sharp featured, Francolini is elegantly androgynous and handles the musical numbers well (the one disappointment was that her voice felt a little underpowered in Victor’s debut, Le Jazz Hot – she fares far better with the more intimate numbers than in the big song and dance routines). She also has real chemistry with Richard Dempsey, who steals every scene he is in as her gay co-conspirator Toddy. Warm hearted, funny and acid tongued without ever being reduced to the caricature of bitchy queen, Dempsey’s performance is a delight, and their friendship feels believable and human, two slightly lost souls united against a hostile world, something which gives the production a solid emotional core.

As Victoria’s romantic interest King Marchand, Matthew Cutts can’t help but feel slightly flat in comparison, but he captures both the confident swagger of the gangster and the confusion of a powerful man who finds his certainties crumbling. As his abandoned moll, Kate Nelson has a proper nastiness beneath the ditzy blonde exterior, her jealousy undercut by a vicious line in homophobia that surfaces when she believes she’s been ousted by a ‘man’. The leads are surrounded by a talented and likeable cast, including ex-Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry as the affable impresario Cassell and Ashley Knight on suitably scheming form as his rival, determined to unveil the singer’s deception.

The original book has been sensitively revised by director Southerland; it is by no means flawless (not least in asking us to consider as romantic hero a man who thinks that shoving a bar of soap into a woman’s mouth is an acceptable way to end an argument) but overall the show retains all of the charm of the original while adding its own, more modern, take. The tone of the piece is slightly darker – you get a real sense of Victoria’s poverty-stricken desperation and of the squalor of Toddy’s life, trapped in an unsatisfying relationship with shallow pretty boy Richard (Matthew Pennington, splendidly unlikeable). Where the production scores big is in fleshing out Toddy’s flirtation with the bodyguard Squash (a sweet Michael Cotton), turning it from an almost throwaway gag into a genuine – and genuinely moving – relationship. So utterly charming is Dempsey that you’re rooting for him to get his man far more than for the central pairing.

This isn’t one of the world’s great musicals – with a couple of notable exceptions, the songs are fairly forgettable – but the cast handle the musical numbers well, and an energetic ensemble gives a pleasing wallop to the big show-pieces, which are lively and witty in their staging. The action is well-served by Martin Thomas’ set design, which places the audience right in the heart of a 30s nightclub. Regular visitors to the Playhouse may feel a pang: the theatre’s Vault space has, over recently months, really come into its own – this is only the latest in a series of productions that have utilised this unique space in an interesting way – and now they have to bid farewell to it forever, but on this evidence they plan to go out on a high note.

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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

Victor/Victoria Show Info


Directed by Thom Southerland

Cast includes Michael Cotton, Mark Curry, Matthew Cutts, Richard Dempsey, Anna Francolini, Dafydd Gwyn Howells, Luke Johnson, Natalie Kent, Ashley Knight, Amira Matthews, Kate Nelson Matthew Pennington, Jean Perkins, Kayleigh Ross, Nick Stuart

Link http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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