“We play the Lambeth way, not like you but a bit more gay”
For its festive musical, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has taken on the 1937 classic Me and My Girl with music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber. Stephen Fry’s revised book from 1985 is used here, with additional contributions to the revisions by Mike Ockrent, these adding a raft of terrible puns and a modern knowingness to what is a brilliant set of songs. The story is pure musical theatre hokum: East End barrow boy Bill Snibson is uncovered as the long-lost heir to an aristocratic fortune but must prove himself to be ‘fit and proper’ before he can inherit as his new-found relatives try to make him behave like a lord and encourage him to ditch his one true love, Sally Smith: will love conquer all? What do you think!
This is director Anna Mackmin’s first musical and her canniest decision has been to employ Stephen Mears as choreographer as he really is one of the best working in the field, as he proves yet again here. Whilst there is nothing quite as delightfully jaw-dropping as the train sequence from Hello, Dolly!, the Act I finale ‘The Lambeth Walk’ comes preciously close with a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed routine, spilling with energy and invention and whipping up the audience into singing and clapping along with pure joy. ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ was another stand-out moment but this show is just full of winners and they are matched by a superlative production and some top quality performances.
Daniel Crossley is outstanding as Bill, the cheeky costermonger who becomes a most reluctant earl but remains winningly engaging throughout with as energetic a performance as you will ever see on the stage. Alive to the pedigree of this show, this is an act entirely rooted in the old time music hall tradition, broadly comic, powerfully sung, nimble-footed at both tap and more expressionist dance and warmly aware of the audience at all times. The routine with the ermine robe was just sensational, I loved his rendition of ‘Me and My Girl’ with Jemima Rooper and ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ allowed for a moving depth to be introduced and an opportunity for Crossley to really show how good a dancer he is.
But it was Josefina Gabrielle came very close to stealing the show for me as the flirtatious Lady Jacqueline Carstone who simply cannot resist a good-sized fortune. Very sexy and very funny, she dances with a beautiful ease and elegance, sounds like a dream and delivers a simply perfect performance. I’m a lot in love with her (and can’t wait for the day I finally see her in a lead role in a musical) and so it made it a little difficult for me to see why Bill wouldn’t pick her over Sally (but then I’ve always liked supporting females more: Anita over Maria, Eponine over Cosette, Rizzo over Sandy…) But ironically, for once we actually have a heroine here who isn’t just a simpering love interest but a ballsy market girl who gives as good as she gets. Jemima Rooper is well-suited as the feisty Sally, a little rough around the edges as her fish(monger) out of water but nifty of foot and solid in her singing and bringing a poignant honesty to the relationship.
Miriam Margolyes’ Duchess and Patrick Ryecart’s Sir John are both great fun as the initially stern but soon twinkle-eyed defenders of the aristocratic tradition; Richard Dempsey (Peter from the definitive BBC Narnia adaptations, and I recognised him without help from the programme too!) fops around well as the Hon. Gerald mooning after Jackie and John Conroy is a marvel as the tap-dancing, ever-singing family solicitor Parchester. The rest of the cast did superbly too, covering toffs, pearly kings and a vast range of minor roles, serving Mears’ choreography extremely well.
Peter McKintosh’s design is cleverly done, using a double revolve to allow a Lambeth back street to transform into Hareford Hall and then again into various internal rooms but keeping the set as a backdrop to allow the maximum space possible for the ensemble to dance (literally) around the stage. And there’s some great little tricks too: a functioning fountain for the opening of Act II; the chandelier on which Crossley gets to swing; the tiger rugs and the way in which…well you’ll have to see for yourself! The band of 12 are tucked away neatly in rooms in the house and play sprightly under Jae Alexander’s musical direction.
What I loved most about it was the immediacy of the production and the brilliant way in which it uses the thrust stage of the Crucible to draw you into the heart of the show and allowing so many people to get so close to the action. This is a particular pleasure with a large-scale musical like this and basically impossible to do in London: if one considers the upcoming Wizard of Oz or Shrek for example, going into the cavernous Palladium and Theatre Royal Drury Lane respectively, one can end up paying large sums of money and still being some considerable distance from the stage, so to pay such reasonable prices and be this close to amazing dancing and top-notch singing with a top quality ensemble was a rare luxury indeed, which should not be underestimated.
My only minor grumble in fact was with the midweek matinée audience, several of whom rustled their way through the show and chatted through the overture (although not for long after a polite but firm request!!) and given the choice, I might have toned down some of the relentless modern twist and played it with more of a straight bat: Salad Days manages this perfectly but I suppose it is a matter of personal taste. But these could not dim the delight of this heart-warming piece of escapist, unashamedly romantic pleasure: old school musical theatre stuffed full of tap-dancing, close to its best.