Novello Theatre, London WC2
Opened 6 June
, 2007

Pick any two stools and watch this show fall between them. In its driving spirit, it is a fringe studio offering (originally created by a Toronto comedy company): a musical-theatre fan in his apartment plays us the soundtrack album of a forgotten 1928 show, commenting drily on it and its performers along the way. Yet in its current form it also requires large-scale production values to do justice to the show-within-a-show, which is played out before us.

It is a pastiche of the antiquated kind of musical confection that simply slotted songs into a gossamer-thin plot structure (Broadway starlet about to marry handsome young devil; temporary hiccup; all resolved, plus three additional bridal couples); however, its 21st-century milieu takes its toll. The word "knowing" does not begin to cover the material: there are major deities less aware than this book. It simultaneously indulges in all the period hallmarks, and also deprecates them by presenting them as quaint or camp. Nor can it resist having its cake and eating it with an ending that is at once Twenties-bright and modern-day sentimental-affirmative.

Director Casey Nicholaw's cast make sterling efforts, but not even the revered Elaine Paige in the title role can entirely banish the inauthentic modern music-theatre nose-voice from songs which should be delivered in quite another style. Our narrator's favourite plot point, a line partially obscured on the "recording" by extraneous noise, is repeatedly mistimed by Paige. Anachronisms such as "I'm still conflicted" pop up in the script, and the narrator tries to portray the casting of a black woman as an aviatrix ("what we now call a lesbian") as progressive for 1928, when we know that the role exists because such consciousness is mandatory for 2007.

All this, and I haven't mentioned whether it's actually any fun. Of course it is (even though it overruns by a quarter-hour), but it queers its own pitch by trying to play the "that's all that matters" card whilst so consistently rooting itself in a far more complex culture. Unlike the narrator, we can't escape our own world and yet remain in it at the same time.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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