Phil Willmott's work as a director of musicals is seen fairly widely, but it is his annual Christmas productions at Battersea for which is he most renowned, and rightly so. Applying the same exuberant aesthetic elsewhere is not always an unqualified success. His version of Pal Joey – now playing at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre to celebrate composer Richard Rodgers' centenary year, and moving on to co-producers Nottingham Playhouse in April – is a case in point.
It seems at first to be paying off. Where a big playing style seems to inflate the limited Battersea space to accommodate great classic musicals or chock-full adaptations, the opening phase of Joey Evans' arrival in Chicago, scamming his way into a night-club MC's job and an innocent girl's heart, feels brash enough to merit a similar approach. But it soon becomes apparent that John O'Hara's adaptation of his own short stories is no Runyonesque caper; indeed, even with Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's reputation, it took a decade from its 1940 première for the true worth of this cynical tale to be recognised. The direction becomes almost pantomimic in places; Des Coleman's Will Smith-esque flourishes as Joey come to pay diminishing returns, and after the exaggeratedly cack-handed rendition by the club's ensemble of "The Flower Garden Of My Heart" that we see supposedly in rehearsal, surely no critic could (as Joey reports them to have done) refrain from saying that they stink.
Willmott is a big-picture director: while numbers like "Flower Garden" and fine wordless Act One overture and closing sequences teem with life, details are often left to fend for themselves. Not even a dialect coach can stop some players referring to their supposed home town as "Chicargo" with that Brit-talking-bad-Yank intrusive R, nor can they even agree on how one character's name is pronounced (is it "Lowell" to rhyme with "hole" or with "howl"?). The terrific Act Two duet of "Take Him" confirms that the two most engaging (because most nuanced and least cranked-up) performances are from Kathryn Evans as Joey's wealthy, seen-it-all sugar momma and Rae Baker as the ingenue he toyed with before moving on. Al Ashford's sound design is on the trebly side: it may be intended to give the sung vocals a period feel of slight artificiality, but I doubt it – more often, and especially on female high notes, it adds an edge of shrillness.
When last I saw Pal Joey, in Philip Prowse's Glasgow Citizens production in 2000, I misjudged it: the story is not as slight as I claimed then, not in the context of musicals of its period. But where Prowse unbalanced it by going all-out for grit, Willmott moves in the other direction and replaces the grit with foam-rubber granules of camp.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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