Some shows you just know are going to get bad reviews but these are quite often shows that certain people are going to love no matter what and so it was with me and Acorn Antiques The Musical. I loved Victoria Wood’s sketch show from the moment I remember seeing it (I’m northern, it is in the contract) and so when I heard that she was writing a musical based on it, there was no doubt what my request for a birthday present would be: tickets to see it at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, Wood took on sole responsibility for the show, writing book, music and lyrics and managed to persuade many of the original stars from the show to reprise their roles: Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and of course, Julie Walters. And when the show focuses on recreating the hilarity that was Acorn Antiques the show as we remember it, this has to be one of the funniest nights I have ever had at the theatre, I was helpless with laughter for so much of it.
Unfortunately though, Wood and Nunn between them have gone a bit meta with the first half which sees the original stars of the axed TV show meeting to rehearse a stage version of the show which has been taken over by a pretentious arty director wants to make it gritty and twisted. It isn’t bad but it doesn’t really fit into the world of the musical that well, certainly not this musical, and whilst there are some winning numbers in here, the Les Mis take off is particularly good and the shambolic dance number combined with Walters’ backstage microphone shenanigans during the open rehearsal were great, one could feel the relief of the audience as Act II opened with a straight rendition of Acorn Antiques the Musical as we all expected, instead of the slightly mocking tone which permeates to begin with.
And everything is there that we recognise from the show, the letters of the shop name falling down, the missed cues, the bumping into each trying to get into the frame, with added bonuses like tap routines, word puzzles, even an appearance from Ronnie Corbett. Wood feels much more comfortable writing here, the songs fit well, the humour is situated in the right place and the performances flow better too. Duncan Preston’s Mr Clifford could have been given more to do but he is good fun, Josie Lawrence is great value as both the dowdy costume woman in the first half and ball-breaking Bonnie in the second and I loved Sally Ann Triplett’s Miss Berta who never quite looks or sounds comfortable, just like Wood herself in the original, with brilliantly amusing awkwardness but also a beautiful singing voice when needed.
But it is about the dames-to-be Imrie and Walters when it comes down to it and neither of them disappointed. Imrie is brilliant as Miss Babs, her comic skills pull her through everything with ease and vocally she managed well, the customer song with Berta was one of my favourites and the vampy Have You Met Miss Babs was close to being a showstopper. But when there is a number devoted to macaroons, sprinkled liberally with hysterical profanities and delivered by a surprisingly strong-voiced Julie Walters, you know you’re onto a winner: I’ve never come so close to giving a standing ovation in the middle of a show before! And combined with the ensemble’s Mrs Overall song complete with moving staircase, these moments more than make up for the first half by amusing you no end and never letting you forget we’re squarely in Manchesterford.
So a hairy moment or two to begin with, but ultimately as good as I knew it was going to be. This will not change a single person’s mind about musicals or Victoria Wood but for fans of either or both, you are in for an absolute treat.