The bowler-hatters and fishnet-hosiers of London continue to be largely kept in business by supplying the West End company of Chicago, with its trademark Bob Fosse look and choreography (recreated by Ann Reinking), and now boasting in its central role of manipulative murderess Roxie Hart the professional Essex girl Denise Van Outen.
The first thing to note is that this is far more than casting just for the sake of a name: the teenaged Van Outen was appearing in West End musicals long before she was reinvented as the sassy, wisecracking co-host of The Big Breakfast and general televisual gun for hire. She has the musical and dance talents even for such a high-profile, demanding role as Roxie (although she's a touch heavy on the vocal tremolo).
And yet watching her performance closely gives rise to a strange and puzzling conclusion. Van Outen has risen to fame as a result of the kind of postmodern TV hosting that sees through everything and pokes fun at it – a mode of presentation that is above all knowing. Chicago is one of the most knowing musicals around, all about Roxie and her smooth-talking attorney Billy Flynn (Clarke Peters, consummate as ever in the role) pulling the strings of the media. Casting Van Outen as Roxie would seem to be a marriage made in showbiz heaven. The curious thing is that she puts terrific energy and ability into the role, but scarcely anything of herself. It's an immensely efficient performance, but without any significant sign of spontaneity or feeling. Even in the most personal number, "Roxie", Van Outen comes truly alive only a few times for a few bars at a time. The rest of the time she just seems supremely skilled at "hitting her marks", even facially; it's as if she were thinking, "...and on this syllable I give them a no. 3 smile for 0.8 seconds..." and so on.
As Velma Kelly, Roxie's rival for attention in the headline homicide stakes, Leigh Zimmerman clearly dominates Van Outen, not just in terms of physical stature (several inches taller with, as a friend of mine would say, legs all the way up to Tufnell Park) but because her performance is more genuinely vibrant; she squares the circle of being at once obviously cold-hearted and palpably human. Barry James makes full use of his unprepossessing physical stature in hubby Amos Hart's big number "Mister Cellophane", inconspicuously revelling in the absurdity of his pear-shaped frame dancing centre-stage. Despite our having acted together as students, I utterly failed to recognise Mattie Clay-White beneath the slap and simper of columnist Mary Sunshine; those who know the show will appreciate that this is a compliment.
But the bottom line is Van Outen's paradoxical performance: she does full, confident justice to the show, but hardly at all to the character, or really to herself. Her hatches are all battened down tightly; it is all visibly an act.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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