Novello Theatre, London WC2
Opened 15 November, 2007

The kooky half-sister of the 1980s' spate of "yuppie nightmare" movies and the New York punk band that gave the '70s its favourite pop goddess: it could be a match made in heaven, or a mighty odd coupling. In the event it's not very much of either. Blondie were, I suppose, among the likelier contenders to have their hits strung together for a stage musical; Susan Seidelman's 1985 film, the first (and arguably still the best) major screen appearance of Madonna, was ripe for a stage version. Why not combine the two?

Well, but why? Transposing the story back even a little way to 1979 changes the world of the story radically. New York had not nearly as much disposable income for the spa baths and hot tubs that make Roberta Glass's husband Gary so smugly comfortable in the 'burbs; punk was still a radical subculture, not a fashion choice as it is here for the mysterious, maverick Susan and her musician boyfriend Jay. Above all, why graft two such distinctive and disparate sources together? Either a) you detect the potential for incredible creative synergy or b) you want to add together their respective commercial potentials. Answers on a postcard, please.

As Roberta, Kelly Price is more conventionally beautiful than her celluloid predecessor Rosanna Arquette (almost unnoticed in the opening-night audience), but can pull off the same disarming "What, me? Gee whiz!" smile. Emma Williams' Susan still has the priceless Egyptian earrings whose pursuit drives the plot along, but her look deliberately falls midway between Madonna and Debbie Harry. It's hard to believe that Roberta could be mistaken for Susan, even after the former suffers a blow on the head and forgets her own identity, but no harder than in the movie.

Peter Michael Marino's script rejigs as little from Leora Barish's screenplay as it can get away with, apart from giving it that six-year nudge and inserting some 18 songs. These include a new number by Harry and Chris Stein, which is instantly identifiable because it sounds entirely unlike Blondie and identical to any other assembly-line stage-musical power ballad. And how do those songs fit? In a few instances, cleverly and sharply: Roberta is greeted in the overnight police cells by a chorus of hookers singing that indictment of the too-square girl, "Rip Her To Shreds", and Steven Houghton's frankly unthreatening hitman gets to state in song his intent to track down Susan/Roberta "One Way Or Another". On other occasions you really can see the join: "Rapture" was always Blondie's most embarrassing moment, and is no better here for being set in a disco. And why does Roberta sing "Dreaming" to her sister-in-law?

Mostly, though, the songs are marred by their arrangement and delivery. Matt Brind and his band produce efficient rock, but too often the numbers are (usually vocally) overblown in a way commensurate with major musical theatre but quite inimical to this kind of pop/rock. Neither woman's voice even approaches the untutored appeal of Harry's; Emma Williams in particular might as well be singing in Les Misérables. They, and most of the leads, engage with appalling frequency in that half-yelp or half-yodel at the beginning or end of a note that is code for emotional intensity but sounds nothing like it. And friends from two very different generations remarked to me in the interval that the amplification was such that they simply couldn't make out the words; if you don't already know most of the songs, then there is little here to help you out. But as I say, the assumption is surely that you already do and that's why you're there. Nor does the show really fail as such; it's just gratuitous and calculated. Still, in all fairness, I was slightly touched by its presence, dear.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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