Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 2 July, 2010

This 1933 musical was originally intended as brash escapism from the Great Depression, and in the wake of Britain's austerity budget, lines like "If anyone doesn't want this job, the nearest breadline is just around the corner" may threaten to resonate afresh... though perhaps less so among the comfortable summer crowd at Chichester.

Yet this is not "comfortable" entertainment; rather, it is fiercely determined to entertain, and it does so in part by extravagantly embracing cliché. If clichés were lightbulbs, this show would be Las Vegas, or 42nd Street itself in its heyday. Everyone knows the line, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've GOTTA come back a star!", yet this is not the corniest moment in the whole corncuopia. The story of the starry-eyed girl from the sticks who makes it first into the chorus and then the lead role of a big Broadway musical is classical fairy-tale stuff; it also furnishes a dose of metatheatre for 21st-century sophisticates, such that following the leading lady's injury (in the story), the interval is heralded by an announcement that the show is unable to go on. But continue it does, joyously.

Paul Kerryson is an old hand at directing this kind of musical: old-fashioned camp without rancour, as opposed to what we now miscall "irony". He brings sets, and at one point the entire ensemble, up through a huge trapdoor, constructs an Art Deco proscenium arch in Chichester's thrust-stage space to accommodate the band, and encourages his cast to luxuriate in their, shall we say, fully matured lines. Tim Flavin as Broadway director Julian Marsh particularly relishes this aspect: when, in the second act, he finally gets the right line delivery out of Lauren Hall's appealing ingénue, Flavin laughs like a mad scientist as if the lightning were arcing overhead. Kathryn Evans as the far-from-ingenue is now in a position where she can parody her own status as a trouper of long service (she also played Norma Desmond in the 2008 revival of Sunset Boulevard), and Louise Plowright and Lisa Donmall also sparkle as the co-writer and the best-friend chorus-girl. It is a resolutely profundity-free zone, but you might as well criticise 42nd Street for being cheesy as criticise Roquefort for the same reason: it is accurate, but misses the essential point.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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