Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 9 June, 2010

Why has The Fantasticks been running for 50 years off-Broadway (apart from a 2002–2006 hiatus) yet never shown any such staying power in the West End? The answer is hidden in the question, in the distinction between off-Broadway and full-blown West End. The show’s first New York venue (1960–2002) had a 150-seat capacity, its quasi-revival there is in a 200-seat house. The Duchess is tiny by West End standards but still seats nearly 500 people. And this is a chamber-sized piece.

Director Amon Miyamoto is wise to opt for a more or less bare stage and simple, broad, out-to-audience storytelling-style performances. However, even the strategy of putting a dozen audience seats actually on the stage and then recruiting two of said punters to join the action amounts only to a facsimile of intimate staging rather than the real thing. Nor does the piece itself draw us into a psychological or emotional engagement. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones have created a musical whose tone, mood, ambitions are modest. Ironically, opening number “Try To Remember” is the only memorable song. It’s clever – Shakespeare, Plautus, commedia dell’Arte are all in there as well as the most direct source, Rostand’s Les Romanesques – but the cleverness in the “boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again” tale is incidental. One of my favourite faint-praise adjectives in these reviews is “affable”, and The Fantasticks is affable to its very marrow. Even the unpleasantness in the second-act episode of separation  has neither teeth nor sting; we are as anaesthetised as young Luisa to the blows being dealt her once-and-future beloved Matt.

Miyamoto’s production has a heavyweight cast. The lovers’ fathers (who pretend a feud in order to trick the kids into getting together “against their wishes”) are played by musical comedy stalwarts Clive Rowe and David Burt (although, surprisingly, Burt was not entirely on tune on press night), and particular delight comes from a couple of hack thespian characters played with exactly the right note of languid irreverence by Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter. Luke Brady and Lorna want as the lovers are... yes... entirely affable. But, unlike the refurbished fabric of the venue (which now boasts the finest West End theatre toilets I know), I doubt this production will last until 2052.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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