BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 1 December, 1999

When an actor currently at the National Theatre and a Golden Rose award-winning television comedian rub shoulders with culture secretary Chris Smith in a first-night audience, you might expect that they are there to be seen rather than to see. But no paparazzi or hordes of the curious were thronging around the old town hall building in Battersea, although the event is as notable in its way as any West End opening. In the space of only a couple of years, it has become a tradition that BAC's main Christmas show will be a golden-age musical directed by Phil Willmott; that it will boast an enormous cast and involve the main theatre space being completely transformed, and all on a shoestring budget; and that these productions will successively break the venue's box-office records.

After The Sound Of Music and The King And I comes Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, with designers Andri Korniotis and Rupert Tebb turning the theatre into something between a saloon, bunkhouse and rodeo arena in which the Pontipee brothers abduct half a dozen innocent girls from the town, get snowed in for the winter on their Oregon farm and are roundly admonished for their Sabine-women stunt by eldest brother Adam's independent-minded bride Milly (Fiona Benjamin). Unlike its precedessors, this show offers little opportunity to play the winsome-children card: the townsfolk include half a dozen "young 'ns", but Willmott's heart does not seem to be in the strategy this year. Instead, he goes for wild and raucous: the town "social" degenerates wonderfully into a brawl, and a farcical chase sequence in the second act is well handled but goes on a couple of minutes too long. "It's all so butch," sighed one of my neighbours, with perceptible disappointment.

One of Willmott's most welcome but least obtrusive achievements is that, in a cast of forty, few if any ever lapse into the "belter" style of more modern musical delivery; this is a particular relief since Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer's songs have since been augmented by a clutch of new numbers by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn which, try as they might to sit flush with the originals, do sound that little bit more rooted in contemporary harmonic structures and modes of delivery. But Willmott communicates to both cast and audience his pleasure in bringing off the small miracles of these shows; if ever it becomes routine to him, then we may worry, but for the time being we can just enjoy.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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