It’s always a pleasure to return to the Bridewell Theatre, created on the site of a Victorian swimming baths and with a pleasant bar and good sightlines. Many amateur companies use the Bridewell as a performing space, located as it is in Fleet Street, central London and with a full programme to attract audiences. GEOIDS are a long-established society with more than eighty years experience of putting on musical theatre, and this was very apparent in their production of On the Twentieth Century.
With music by Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, this show comes with a good pedigree if a less glowing performance history. Although large-scale productions of the show have tended not to achieve long runs, it does seem to adapt well to smaller-scale performance, despite the scenic requirements and the size of the cast: not that there was anything small-scale about the casting of this production, with an 18-piece orchestra and 26 performers on stage.
The auditorium at the Bridewell had a single ramp of seating leaving a large playing area with a good view of Roberta Volpe’s inventive and stylish set. It is no small feat to conjure up the illusion of the exterior and interior of a moving train, as well as several other locations, and Volpe does so with aplomb, the intricate sections of the train emerging from openings in the set and fitting together like a giant jigsaw. This was one of the most complex – and effective – sets I have seen in amateur theatre, and it is no surprise that a total of 26 people are listed as having helped in its construction.
Musical direction was in the experienced hands of Jerome van den Berghe, perched with his large orchestra high above the set, and he and his musicians provided a very full and well-balanced accompaniment for the cast. Lemington Ridley’s costumes, some seen only briefly, were also far superior to those often seen in amateur theatre, and only a company like GEOIDS could bring a show with these production values to such a small venue (though it was unfortunate that one performer had to sing in a black dress in front of black tabs).
The script has not worn well, and amusing lyrics mentioning rape and whole songs making fun of mental illness would probably not be included in a new musical today, so it is important to approach the piece as a historical artefact, written in the 1970s but based on source material from the 1930s. The whole production team seemed to be aware of this, and the mannered approach to the material worked very well.
As lead character Lily Garland, Rachel Benton brings considerable experience and significant expertise to the role, coping well with the screwball comedy and singing beautifully. George Still, Kevin Murray and Lewis Simington as the trio of ne’er do wells who attempt to sign her up for the theatre are nicely differentiated and well-played. Dan Geller went completely over the top as Bruce Granit in a performance style which would have grated elsewhere but was entirely in tune with the production on this occasion.
Performances of the night for me included Paul Brookland Williams’ Conductor, dancing up a storm and leading his troupe of gender-bending train staff in a series of fast, skilful and exhilarating tap sequences, and it was a joy to the audience to see this quality of dancing up close. Also impossible to miss was Grace Iglesias Fernandez as Letitia Primrose, achieving a great deal by underplaying while surrounded by large than life caricatures. Her sidelong glances and surreptitious acts were accompanied by a singing voice that was not only impressive but also suited the character, and she knows how to sell a song.
Producer Blake Klein and Director Matt Bentley should be congratulated on the success of this production, not least in marshalling so many people in such a small space. With solid support from Nichola Welch’s choreography and her well-drilled dancers, Bentley ensured that pace was maintained, as was an appropriate performance style with artificiality and caricature the defining feature of the production. The extensive set changes were achieved by a combination of cast and efficient stage-hands, although I would have preferred to see cast members set the stage for She’s a Nut as the sudden appearance of stage-hands downstage in full light jarred at that point.
A realistic performance style would ruin the show, and Bentley is clearly aware of that. The show has its roots in the era and performance style of the Marx Brothers, and the decision to adopt a similar performance style was a wise one. Whatever the shortcomings of the original show, this was an excellent rendition of it, and the company deserve to have full houses for the run. This is an ambitious and active company, with four full-scale musicals and a panto to come in 2017, and GEOIDS fully deserve their reputation as one of London’s leading amateur musical theatre companies.