Review: A Sentimental Journey, Wilton’s Music Hall

“You’re not going into that whole load of hooey are you…”

To anyone who has read this blog for a bit, it will come as no surprise that one of my favourite venues in London is Wilton’s Music Hall: a striking historical wonder in the East End, one of the most atmospheric places in the city and one that is sadly in need of much support and funding. I’ve tried to do my part by attending everything there since I discovered it late last year (Edmond and The Waste Land, both remarkable), and the latest play to be put on there is A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day.

It does what it says on the tin, tells the story of 1950s sweetheart Doris Day, who can lay claim to being one of the most successful box-office stars of all time, and how behind the carefully cultivated wholesome image lay a life of frustration, unhappiness, debt and a whole load of marital shenanigans. The story is accompanied throughout by many of Day’s famous songs, played fabulously by a quartet on stage under the excellent musical direction of Jo Stewart and sung by all the actors.

To be brutally honest, the writing really isn’t up to much. The story is interesting enough but the speed with which we go through her life means that there’s no digging down into motivations or emotions or recriminations: things happen then we quickly move onto the next event, time after time. Indeed, there are moments when it just feels like the narrator is reciting facts from a Wikipedia page, like her list of awards, or co-stars she was rumoured to have affairs with, with no real attempt to examine any of it or mine any depth. It is only very occasionally that Doris pops up with a tidbit like how she hated her stage name, wasn’t keen on ‘Que Sera Sera’ or that she can’t see any gay or lesbian subtext to ‘Secret Love'(!). Which brings us onto the bête noir of 2010, talking to the audience (the number of naked men about seems to be dropping so it was clearly a January thing). Clearly I have no issue with the narrator addressing us, but when Doris would every so often break out of the scene and tell us something like the things mentioned above, it was rather distracting and increasingly annoying.

Sally Hughes’ Doris Day is an excellent impression, capturing mannerisms and accent extremely well, it’s just a shame that there isn’t the room for her to show any range or any real sense of emotion as we race through her life, with no real sense of getting to know the real woman. And, oddly, there’s no real difference in her performance at age 14 or age 80, we’re just still aware that all she wants is a nice husband. Ian McLarnon as Terry, the suited narrator and Doris’ son, does a good job at keeping things moving along and trying to invest some meaning into the bland narration. I could have done without him changing into some (too tight) white jeans for a segment, but he did provide the evening’s most beautifully moving moment in a starkly revelatory These Days.

Mark Halliday, Elizabeth Elvin and Glyn Kerslake all have much fun playing a vast range of supporting characters and end up being much more engaging as they breathe life into proceedings with their cameos: Kerlake’s Sinatra nearly stole the show with a beautiful ‘Young at Heart’ and Elvin’s ‘Move Over Darling’ was most amusing, adding colour and character to prevent the whole thing from slipping into torpor.

I was sometimes bemused by the song choices, being my first experience of the jukebox style I perhaps paid more attention to the lyrics than I should have done. It really did seem that if the title of the song fitted the mood then it was put in, regardless of the lyrical content, so we ended up with one guy who was too shy to talk to Doris singing “a million times I’ve asked you, and then I ask you over again” to marry her in ‘Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps’, and more disturbingly Doris and her father trilling “kiss me once, kiss me twice then kiss me once again” to each other during ‘It’s A Long Long Time’! For my favourite Doris Day number to be included, she would evidently have had to become an astronaut!!

The staging quite frankly verges on the bizarre, ranging from surreal babies, a whip-cracking ride around the hall in a box and some dodgy mime moves which hurt my eyes. The stage is a pastel-coloured 60s tv set, with the band It was all epitomised by a radio that took longer to be painstakingly lowered from the gods on a wire than it was actually used for in its scene. Unfortunately, it all just looks too low-budget: I’d be tempted to just do away with all the props and boxes and focus it more on just movement and the music: the car crash was actually well-realised, relying more on effective lighting and this play was best when at its simplest.

There are moments of loveliness in A Sentimental Journey, almost all due to the wonderful music and in a venue as atmospheric as Wilton’s, there was something magical about harking back to past times with a final sing-along to ‘Que Sera Sera’, no matter how cheesy it may seem. For me, the play did not stand up to the quality of the music, despite strong performances especially from the ones playing multiple parts, so it is a mixed bag. Chatting to the people around me in the interval though. the majority of people had never visited the venue before so I am pleased that more and more are becoming aware of this little treasure and hopefully helping to make its future more secure.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Note: I would recommend sitting on the right hand side as you’re looking at the stage, there’s a couple of very brief scenes on the balcony which you miss if you’re on the left.

4 thoughts on “Review: A Sentimental Journey, Wilton’s Music Hall

  1. Hmmm, I didn't want to mention the potential for nepotism that is suggested above, but yes, it is written by Adam Rolston, son of Sally Hughes who stars as Doris, who just happens to be the Artistic Director at the Mill at the Sonning where this premiered last year.

  2. I wouldn't go with high expectations, but it was entertaining none-the-less. Although, I would HIGHLY disagree with this reviewer about Sally Hughes having "nailed" Doris' accent. By far the best part of the play is when Ian McLarnon opened his mouth to sing – you'll be asking yourself what in the world he's doing in a play this cheesy when he can sing like that.

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