Presented by Therry Theatre
Reviewed 2nd June, 2022
This charmingly unpretentious show, given its first outing in Australia by Therry, is set in 1947, in Shepardsford, “a typical small Yorkshire town which, like the rest of the country, still bears the scars of the recent war.” Poverty, rationing (of both food and other goods), small town politics and bureaucracy all play a part in its gently comic plot. From the moment we hear British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s adenoidal broadcast voice, we know precisely where we are and what we’re in for. It’s village hi-jinks, complete with a dreaded Meat Inspector, a triumvirate of bumbling connivers (doctor, lawyer and accountant), a socially aspirant woman, her kind but gormless ancillary health-care worker husband, a mixed bag of townspeople (guaranteed quirky) and some butchers.
This musical has good bloodlines. Cameron Mackintosh developed it from a 1984 film written by Alan Bennett (A Private Function), with music and lyrics by George Styles and Anthony Drewe, those good people who brought us Honk!. Bennett’s elegant fingerprints are all over the text. Porcine puns, innuendos, double entendres and guffaw-worthy farce moments abound. He never forgets to entertain us. Director Ben Todd is clearly of the same mind, making sure that this production retains its folksy charm whilst maintaining a brisk storytelling pace. It’s a winning formula.
The cast of 23 is listed alphabetically; each cast member has a named character part. However, the heavy lifting in this pun-soaked pork-barrel is done by Trish Hart and Jared Frost, as Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers. Recent arrivals in town, Gilbert is a gently inoffensive chiropodist, while his wife, Joyce, longs for social upward mobility whilst giving piano lessons to reluctant youngsters, specifically the obnoxious Veronica (Cassidy Gaiter), infant daughter of the town’s well-heeled accountant and his formidable wife. The plot demands that we care about what happens to Joyce and Gilbert, as they attempt to fit into a new community, whilst coping with the strict rationing of commodities which everyone in post-war Britain suffered. Jared Frost brought Gilbert to life with grace, effortless energy and intelligent acting. Although his vocal quality was consistently excellent, his solo The Kind Of Man I Am, was a quiet standout triumph of sensitivity and balance. Trish Hart’s role, while more in the line of music theatre tropes, demanded a broad range of character acting skills. Hart commanded the stage – as either frump or femme fatale, she remained vocally secure and achieved a satisfying character arc throughout the piece.
Clumsy conspirators (accountant, doctor and lawyer) represent the seedy underbelly of the town. As accountant Henry Allardyce, Craig Ellis takes us from hard-line businessman to soft-hearted pet-lover, his broad face gleaming with affection. The forbidding Doctor Swaby is played to the hilt by Greg Janzow, his character fairly crackling with menace. Completing the trio is John McKay, playing (wholly against type) Mr Lockwood, a slimy sub-species of lawyer. The acting of all three sleazy gents is of very good standard. Their singing, although sometimes serviceable, is much less secure.
Arch-villain in the piece is the Meat Inspector, Mr Wormold. Dark-clad, cadaverous and constantly menacing, Neville Phillis visits a world of threat upon the whole village; I suspect he really enjoys the unredeemed nastiness of his character. Phillis manages the acting with great grace and energy. However, he has difficulty with the singing his role requires, especially in his big feature number, Painting By Heart, when the score becomes quite Weill-esque.
Carolyn Adams needs acknowledgement for her exquisite comedic gem of a Mother Dear. Claudine Bryant does a fearless Mrs Tillbrook, leading the ladies of the town who are on the scent of something off. Nicholas Mitchell pulls off a deft double-header of Sergeant Noble and Prince Philip. Rachel Newton’s lusty Mrs Metcalf showed acting, singing and movement (!) skills.
In full ensemble numbers, the singing was clearly very well-rehearsed, and it frequently hit the spot. The ladies’ trio in Lionheart gave a gentle nod to the Andrews Sisters. This song, the best of the small ensembles, was both well-balanced and clearly sung and acted.
Costuming was meticulously managed (thanks to Gillian Cordell, Sandy Faithfull, and their advisers and dressers). Hair fashions of the late 1940’s (waves and pompadours, victory rolls and pageboys) were a feature of the ladies’ ensemble. Busy Ben Todd, together with Loren Panno, did a set design which perfectly complemented the whimsical simplicity of the piece. Assorted interiors and exteriors were suggested by minimal hardware and a rolling backdrop. This stripped-back design philosophy enabled the warmth and charm of the story to sit front and centre all night.
Choreography, by Vanessa Redmond, was carefully managed to work on the size of stage with an ensemble of varying movement skills. Musical Director Katie Packer ensured consistently appropriate tempi, from the brisk ensemble opener, Goodbye, Austerity Britain to the end. Her ten-piece band was largely on her side, using the two-keyboard foundation beloved of many modern orchestrations. There was, however, a renegade trombonist who must have given the MD conniptions.
Finally, three hearty British cheers for Director Ben Todd, whose commitment to music theatre has enabled him to remain faithful to the style of this quirky English piece. Todd has confected an entertaining, lively and satisfying show with universal appeal.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Venue: The Arts Theatre
Season: 1st – 11th June, 2022
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes (incl. interval)
Tickets: $40:00 (conc. $30:00)