Savoy Theatre, London WC2
Opened 2 December, 2008

I left the Savoy Theatre with hope in my heart as the song exhorts, uplifted and unashamed at my immersion in the sentimentality of Lindsay Posner’s production. Only later did I remember that, to achieve this result, he has had to sell the pass on virtually every shadow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. Yes, songs such as “If I Loved You” and the roustabout Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy” are heartbreaking in their yearning, and “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” an irresistible paean to going forth and multiplying. But, as Alastair Macaulay noted on this page on the show’s last major British revival in 2006 at Chichester, the narrative elements include “unemployment and conventional ideas of feminine decency... male violence to women, excessive gambling and finally a one-parent family”. All of which, in the moment (well, the three hours), manage to glide by insubstantially. When Billy (Jeremiah James) returns to Earth after his death to try to set his 15-year-old daughter on the right path but ends up once more resorting to violence, the slap is barely noticeable; earlier, when this was set up by showing him similarly strike her mother, I saw nothing at all of the blow, only the responses to it. The ballet of daughter Louise’s awakening sexuality is, in Adam Cooper’s choreography, vaguely indicative rather than outright erotic.
As Billy’s wife Julie, Alexandra Silber is blessed with one of those faces that seem to show right through to the heart. Whether Julie is feeling joy or desolation, Silber’s face radiates the emotion in question. It is beautiful, but can serve here to make the story seem too storybook, like inferior manga drawings. Lesley Garrett as cousin Nettie combines, as ever, a natural effervescence and powerhouse voice with an accent that keeps springing from Maine back to south Yorkshire. To aid what had been a touring production before its entry to the West End, designer William Dudley uses few props and instead makes use of the CGI techniques first seen from him on The Woman In White: location is suggested by projected computer-animation sequences (including the wrong late-19th-century version of the Stars & Stripes and, on Billy’s ascension, a frankly tawdry set of Pearly Gates). It’s a thoroughly entertaining evening; unfortunately, that’s the goal of the production but just the starting point of the piece itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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