Labatt's Apollo Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 8 July, 1997

I have not experienced such disappointment at a musical since the 1991 opening of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. It is the disappointment of expecting even, to be brutally frank, hoping to loathe a show, and finding that the damned thing will not permit it. You see, Summer Holiday is great fun.

Admittedly, the press night had the added attraction of Sir Cliff Richard and the Blessed Una Stubbs bringing the audience to its feet as they entered the stalls (I half expected the band to strike up The Young Ones as if it were the National Anthem), and causing a 20-minute delay in the curtain going up as a stream of supplicants thronged around their seats. But the show itself at two hours 45 minutes, an hour longer than the 1963 film which inspired it is really quite delightful.

The story of the four mechanics who convert a London bus for a trans-Europe jaunt, picking up on the way a girl singing trio and an American teen idol on the run from her harridan mother, allows director/designer Ultz to go to town in fact, to go to several towns on the visuals. Few other designers could get away with putting a full-size double-decker onstage, and he throws in a 1960s bubble-car and a polka-dot painted Morris Minor into the bargain. His set, also including a stage-wide truck on which anything can be wheeled in from a Neapolitan wedding party to an entire dance routine representing a Swiss clock striking the hour, is big and exuberant, but complements the atmosphere of the show rather than swamping it in gratuitous hi-tech.

As Don all right, let's be honest, as Cliff Darren Day radiates genuine enjoyment. At one point on Tuesday night, the audience whoops which greeted his appearance clad only in a bath-towel led him to grin, "I've forgotten me lines now!"; the moment certainly looked unrehearsed, an impression bolstered by his mumbled "Sorry about this, Mum." Day has boy-next-door charm in abundance, and a singing voice frighteningly like that of Cliff, to the extent that once or twice he even affects the sharp, clipped "I" sounds of recent Richard, as in, "We're going where the sun shyiynes briyghtly."

He and his comrades (René Zagger, Mark McGee and consummate hoofer Darren J. Bennett) come over as a clean-cut boy band, white jeans and all, epitomising the work of adaptors Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan in trying to blend '60s low-camp with current sensibilities. Some of the jokes are plainly anachronistic, but it hardly matters; nor do Day's occasional outbreaks of contemporary pop mannerism such as raising his index and little fingers into the air a "Hornéd One" salute? What would Sir Cliff think? Other Cliff hits, such as "Move It" and "Travellin' Light", are astutely stitched into the proceedings alongside numbers from the film itself.

Clare Buckfield as love interest Barbara has all the requisite wide-eyed gee-whizzery; as her mother, Hilary O'Neil is a beehived panto villainess who appears to be wearing a mink on each eye. The only cloud on the sunny horizon is Ross King as business manager Wallace, whose irrepressibility quickly becomes wearing; he gets (or gives himself) all the snappiest lines, and as Carlyle remarked of Thomas Macaulay, he is "well for a while, but one wouldn't live under Niagara."

I still object on principle to planned encores, especially 15-minute ones such as this, albeit including a guest appearance from Sir Cliff; if actors need a fresh costume change for a curtain-call, things have probably gone too far. Nevertheless, Summer Holiday makes for an evening of wholesome, enjoyable low-fat cheese; I earned an affable rebuke from Christopher Biggins, sitting near me, for being one of the few not standing by the end.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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