King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 3 January, 2003

I have long harboured an antipathy towards the stage-musical convention of including separately staged encores as a routine part of the performance. Too Marvelous For Words at the King's Head Theatre both is and is not a case in point. The two-act show is followed by a "Medley", explicitly listed in the programme, by way of coda. It includes snatches of fourteen songs as many as are included in the entire first act, and four more than in the second. However, none of these numbers has appeared in the show proper. It is, rather, a way of tackling the embarrassment of riches provided by the show's subject, songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Mercer simply has too many greatest hits to be digested in a narrative show (the narrative being his own life story). His body of lyrical work is so vast that the likes of "On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe" can de dismissed with a brief spoken extract, and even "Moon River" relegated to a single verse during the closing medley. No selection from such an oeuvre can be definitive.

The book and staging (both by Alvin Rakoff) are efficient and entertaining, sticking to a cast of four such as can comfortably be accommodated on the stage of the King's Head and co-producers The Mill at Sonning, where the production originated last spring. Andrew Halliday has the fresh, appealing quality required of a musical's protagonist, even one as fond of the bottle as Mercer was (and, by the way, why does Rakoff ascribe to a drunken Mercer the two most famous barbed comments of Winston Churchill?); the Mill's artistic director Sally Hughes offers solid support as long-suffering wife Ginger. Daniel Gillingwater relishes his comic appearances, from a drag number to an entry down a rope ladder as an angel; Alexandra Jay sparkles in miscellaneous female roles.

Some aspects of Mercer's life are skated over: it's understandable that his founding and then sale of Capitol Records are treated so blithely, rather less so to downplay the fact that his first big break came as a singer rather than a lyricist. But here as with the choice of songs, Rakoff is crafting a stage show rather than an authoritative chronicle, and on those terms he succeeds. Comedian Arthur Smith would be disappointed, as the evening leaves unanswered one of his long-standing queries what exactly is a "huckleberry friend"? but really the evening is as enjoyable as it sets out to be, medley and all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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