Bridewell Theatre, London EC4
Opened 13 January, 2004

A fringe theatre in a once-derelict swimming pool hall just off Fleet Street faces closure due to lack of funds. Not, on the face of it, a particularly compelling story. However, in the decade of its existence, the Bridewell has established itself as a unique custodian of neglected musicals, staging revivals and even premières to critical acclaim and as much commercial success as such a venue can achieve.

To begin what may be its final season, the theatre presents the British première of Victor/Victoria, Blake Edwards' 1995 stage version of his film about a woman masquerading as a female impersonator in 1930s Paris, with songs by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse. Director Phil Willmott is unequalled as regards intimate musical stagings that fit a quart into a half-pint pot, and he manages that feat again here. The weaknesses are partly in the material, and (ironically) partly in the venue itself.

I'm not that surprised that this piece never made it from Broadway (where it ran for nearly two years) to the West End. It's a bit of a muddle: sometimes glib in its affirmation ("Victoria, what a victor you are!" cheers the closing number), sometimes a wee bit too mordant in its gayness for a mainstream British culture that still prefers its camp to be kitschy and wholly unthreatening. Some of Bricusse's lyrics are magnificent, not least a number in which an American bimbo champions her native Chicago against numerous cities across the globe, rattling off rhymes such as "Munich"/"eunuch". But other passages are pedestrian, Mancini's score isn't among his finest, and Frank Wildhorn's musical additions are sometimes little more than noodling.

This is where the Bridewell space begins to take its toll. Musical director Annemarie Lewis Thomas uses some over-complex vocal arrangements: singers who aren't always spot-on, combined with a tiny band (piano, bass, drums) muffled in a corner and the acoustics of the hall, can turn vocal polyphonies into undifferentiated blare. The acoustics also work against Ria Jones as Victoria when she goes for the burn; much better when she keeps herself reined in vocally. Christopher Holt is a gloriously engaging queen as Toddy, Victoria's partner-in-fraud and fake lover. Not everything else comes off perfectly, but Willmott has a winning way with shoestring exuberance, and it's important that the Bridewell should have the opportunity to continue its programme of small revelations.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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