As the King's Head Theatre in Islington struggles to survive past the end of the year following the London Arts Board's withdrawal of core funding, many of its hopes for survival must be pinned on the Shaftesbury Avenue transfer of its late spring success A Saint She Ain't. Quite a curio for the West End: a full-blown musical accompanied by twin pianos only, and one which relies neither on lavish production values nor, as with those odious "compilation" shows, on material which we are all expected to know and love already. No, in this case, it is the characters themselves who are familiar.
Dick Vosburgh has adapted Molière's one-act Le Cocu Imaginaire as if it were an all-star 1940s Hollywood musical. Thus, after a scene-setting number by "the Andrews Sisters", what we are presented with is as follows: W.C. Fields and Mae West are the irascible middle-aged couple, Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly the young lovers; through a series of wildly implausible coincidences, each comes to believe that his or her beloved is carrying on with one of the other couple (and, indeed, West does make several determined plays for Kelly, but there is never any question of her succeeding). Meanwhile, one of Kelly's fellow sailors on leave, Lou Costello, gets hooked by Hayworth's best friend, who might be meant to be Martha Raye but I wouldn't swear to it... you get the picture? The characters' names are unimportant... although Snaveley T. Bogle and Willoughby Dittenfeffer sit well on "Fields" and "Costello" respectively; the crucial element is the joy of this comprehensive pastiche, as the Hayworth redhead's father, an obvious Jimmy Durante, barrels around coming out with Schozzle-like malapropisms about being "on the horns of a Dalai Lama" and Gavin Lee as "Kelly" gets to dance merrily around lamp posts (although not in the rain).
Denis King's music is absolutely in the mood (pun intended) of the period and genre, and Vosburgh's book and lyrics are jam-packed with gags of the sort that they just don't make any more – "I'm aghast if ever there was one", for instance, or the great couplet "Not even George Montgom'ry/Makes wintry days so summ'ry". Barry Cryer brings to his Fields role the same winning sardonicism he displayed several years ago in the single showcase performance given to (the subsequently injuncted) Maxwell – The Musical; Pauline Daniels Mae-Wests for all she is worth, playing out to the audience at least as often as to the other characters in the scene, but gets the evening's most memorable number, "The Banana For My Pie", a list of lascivious metaphors such as would have turned censor Will Hays all the outraged shades in the Technicolor spectrum. Vincent Marzello and Michael Roberts share a complex gag about a diner's menu at least as funny – and as annoying – as Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's on first" routine; even Paul Farnsworth's design, with its deliciously fakey perspectives and HOLLYWOOD sign in the background, gets in on the joke.
Under Ned Sherrin's capable direction, the show occasionally feels either too cosy or, conversely, to be labouring too hard to make the transfer from the King's Head to a venue more than six times as big, but what matters most of all is that it is simply immense fun.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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