Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 26 July, 1995

Meredith Willson's 1957 musical about an unmusical musical-instrument salesman gnaw at that phrase and it does make some kind of sense is played as a shameless romp in Ian Talbot's Regent's Park production. It may be lacking in the resources for large-scale spectacle (with, for instance, a juvenile chorus only four strong), but Talbot and his cast make up for any such deficiencies with a vatful of brio.

Indeed, the self-proclaimed contrary townsfolk of River City, Iowa, seem only too eager to fling themselves into improbably gleeful choreography at the drop of a brown derby. Their resistance to bogus "Professor" Harold Hill's scam of selling them a boys' band's-worth of instruments and uniforms, then skipping town, is blown away by the merest toot on his pitch pipes: the dour gentlemen of the School Board launch into close-harmony singing, the prime teenage ne'er-do-well begins designing wire music-holders for piccolo players, and even the denizens of the town library let rip with a soft-shoe shuffle.

In short, it does not boast the most watertight of plots. Even Hill's main opponent, music teacher and librarian Marian Paroo (Liz Robertson), undergoes a Damascene conversion to his cause which is unexplained until the final scene. But if the narrative is little more than an excuse for the numbers, those numbers are imbued with a strong sense of fun.

For those of us who had thought of Brian Cox as a largely sombre actor typified by such appearances as Ibsen's The Master Builder or the original screen incarnation of Dr Hannibal Lecktor (sic) in Manhunter his performance as Harold Hill is an eye-opener. Dressed (as are most of the menfolk) in a variety of checks that do not bounce so much as career, he throws himself into the part with wild abandon. Mr Cox plainly likes a bit of a cavort. He cannot always hold a long note in song, and even in the high-speed Sprechgesang in which much of Hill's musical part is written, he occasionally drops a little behind the band, but the glee of a man cutting loose from his reputation sweeps such niggles aside.

Among the townspeople, John Challis darts out from behind his mutton-chop whiskers to devour Mayor Shinn's babel of proverbial-sounding folksy gibberish; Nick Holder makes a bulky but energetic sidekick to Hill; and Veronica Clifford creates a deliciously grotesque mayor's wife, resembling Blanche Dubois as played by the late John Candy. Sentimental numbers such as "Goodnight, My Someone" and "Till There Was You" allow the cast to pause for breath amid the overall Looney Tune atmosphere, which is reinforced by Paul Farnsworth's playful set design of an out-of-kilter clapboard main street. In fact, the whole evening is a live-action cartoon of which Chuck Jones would be proud.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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