Show: Promises Promises
Society: West End & Fringe
Venue: Southwark Playhouse. 77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD
Credits: Book by Neil Simon. Music by Burt Bacharach & Lyrics by Hal David. Produced by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment and Ollie Rosenblatt for Senbla.
Author: Ned Hopkins
Perfomence Date: 17/01/2017
Ned Hopkins | 18 Jan 2017 14:22pm
The joy of fringe revivals of neglected shows is that, in a more intimate environment, stripped of their original, often lavish production values, the contemporary director has the opportunity to dig deeper into the dramatic heart of the work. And, oh that the books of some current, albeit successful musicals, were as strong as Promises Promises!
Even so, Neil Simon’s writing is not his best in the opening scenes. Chuck’s jokey chats with the audience seem a bit self-conscious. One misses the unforced humour of the books for his other ‘60s shows Little Me and Sweet Charity. Fortunately, as the story gets darker, drama and humour become more spontaneous – and relevant.
I recall the 1969 London production as a smartly packaged musical machine, bubbling along with Neil Simon’s wisecracks and the pulsating urgency of Bacharach & David’s pop-music score, whilst Michael Bennett’s choreography (his fine work was later to grace such hits as A Chorus Line) kept a chic, smartly dressed ensemble constantly busy. Based on Billy Wilder’s esteemed 1960 film The Apartment, the musical also slightly dumbed-down the grittier nature of the black-and-white film. Now, almost fifty years later, Bronagh Lagan, the director of this largely enjoyable – if occasionally uneven – revival has chosen to go back to the show’s source material for inspiration and has drawn from her principals some affecting performances.
Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood as Chuck Baxter and Fran Kubelik beautifully evoke the subtle reactions and emotional nuance of the young Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine – the backs of my eyes were stinging on several occasions. As Fran Kubelik, a waitress in the restaurant of a large New York insurance company and the mistress of its married Personnel Director, urchin-cropped Maywood first appears like a mouse swamped in a hideous brown, cheap fur collared overcoat. As the evening wears on, more and more of her character and smouldering frustration emerges until, by the Christmas office party, now in an enchanting smoky blue dress, she breaks our hearts singing A House is Not a Home. This is indeed a feat, as the song was not written for the show, but a film of the same name, and its inclusion here seems superfluous, but still … She also brings to the role some of the simmering, silent anger of an Elizabeth Moss. In fact, throughout the evening, I was thinking Mad Men to music!
Vick, as the ambitious would-be Junior Second Assistant Manager, has much of Lemmon’s likeable openness and self-deluding naiveté. Chuck, too, is on a painful journey. Three quarters of his salary goes to paying the rent on his small apartment. When four of his middle-aged married male senior colleagues latch-on to this, they bribe him with promises of advancement if he will lend them his room for an hour or so each week so they can entertain their girlfriends. When he eventually discovers Fran, the girl of his dreams, unconscious in his bed having attempted suicide, the drama really takes off. By the end of the show she has finally realised a man far worthier of her may be close to hand.
Of course, the piece reflects the ‘60s newly found sexual liberation and some members of the audience may now consider it dated and politically dubious. Really, even in Trumpsville? Sadly, I find it as relevant as ever. Despite the staccato bounce of many of the songs, many have an underlying melancholy, including the barnstorming Knowing When to Leave, the melancholy Wanting Things and Whoever You Are:
Sometimes your eyes look blue to me
Although I know they’re really green
I seem to see you differently
Changing as I’m treated kindly
Or treated meanly
Above all, the cynical hit song I’ll Never Fall in Love, with its dire warning:
What do you get when you kiss a guy
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia
After you do, he’ll never phone you
In addition to the leads, there are first-rate comic performances from Alex Young as Marge, the woman in the ‘owl’ coat who flirts with Chuck flirts in a bar on Christmas Eve and shares the number A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing, which once helped propel the young Julia Mackenzie to greater things. As Dr Dreyfuss, who helps save Fran’s life, John Guerrasio makes the most of Simon’s entertaining script in the part made famous – both in the film and the show – by Jack Kruschen. Natalie Moore-Williams revels in her scene as the bitchy, scorned Miss Olson, whilst in the unsympathetic part of the leading adulterer, Sheldrake, Paul Robinson is musically in good voice but slightly underpowered; he does, however, bring out the sadness of the man.
Simon Wells’ neat multi-purpose set uses projections to tell us where we are, and the cast of twelve move scenery and furniture and play a variety of roles as and when required, generating the sense of a large sky-scrapered organisation.
Despite sterling additional cameos and dance work from Claire Doyle and Emily Squibb, however, it is a pity that a few of the secondary performances are lacklustre. In a production like this, which is tightly cast with much doubling up, everyone needs to be able to project pizazz, singing and movement to an overall even standard. The addition of a couple of strong male dancers would also add flair to Cressida Carré’s choreography – a budgetary thing, no doubt. Just a little more pace, edge and attack and better sound balance might help cover these deficiencies – most noticeable early on in the exposition stage when the show needs to rattle along more.
Full marks though for MD Joe Louis Robinson, who does full justice to Bacharach’s score, cleverly arranged for a perky seven-piece band by Elliot Davis.
Nevertheless, at the matinee I attended just a few hours prior to Press Night the audience were delighted with it all and, indeed, there was much to charm and engage with.