WARTS AND ALL
Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, nr. Newbury
Opened 19 February, 1996

"How do/You open a revue/When nobody has ever heard of Stiles and Drewe?" In this case, you open it with a jolly little self-deprecating number. The writers of the musical Just So (staged at the Watermill in 1989) have been nearly-men for several years now, and this canter through their back catalogue (including outtakes) plus new material and a nightly semi-improvised number, is nearly very good.

Composer George Stiles has the pleasant but slightly forced air of Gary Lineker making an after-dinner speech; lyricist Anthony Drewe is more at ease with jollity, rather like a chef on a TV gameshow. They are bolstered by Jenna Russell, whose strength is in delivering straight numbers; former Fabulous Singlette Alison Jiear, who simply demands to be described as a bundle of fun; and Britain's erstwhile favourite choirboy Aled Jones. Jones is a pleasant surprise: his fine baritone and accomplished stage-musical delivery effectively slough off the memories of his days in a white surplice, although he is game enough to tackle a song about an ex-chorister whose winsome career has been wrecked by testosterone.

The material is a mixed bag. Stiles and Drewe are at their most comfortable penning humorous Kit and the Widow-style ditties, although not quite up to the standard of that other duo. There are few great surprises in the subject matter: phone sex, nouvelle cuisine and roadmenders' ill-fitting trousers are all pressed into service, and a number satirising trainspotters is frankly like shooting fish in a barrel. As against that, one of the strongest and certainly the most daring song of the evening, "Bull Inside My China Shop", concerns Cretan queen Pasiphae's taste for taurine bestiality with Jiear crooning innuendoes such as "I want a beefburger in my bap" and Jones making the most of that testosterone. In another slice of the bizarre, the close-harmony number "Tiddlywinks" takes its lyrics verbatim from the official rules of the game.

The straighter, usually romantic element is less distinguished. It takes guts to use the word "Limpopo" in a rhapsodic ensemble number (from Just So), but by and large Drewe seems less at home with emotional lyrics, and Stiles's tunes utilise familiar-sounding generic chord progressions without quite becoming hummable.

The team also make a foray into Richard Stilgoe territory by inviting the audience before the interval to supply random words which will be incorporated into a lyric performed during the second half; on the press night "budgerigar", "marmalade" and "existentialism", to name but three, successfully made it into a song which proved exceptionally coherent, if not exactly polished to a high gloss.

It is perfectly personable stuff, with no necessity to build a bypass around it (one local topic which the duo declined to treat). But Stiles and Drewe may, I fear, be confined to making a half-decent living from their musical work rather than seeing their names in lights wherever they look in Theatreland.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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