“A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman? That’s preposterous.”
It is sad that the Southwark Playhouse will have to quit its current London Bridge premises as it has hit a vein of real good form allied to a growing understanding of how best to use the converted railway arches and particularly so with this creative team, who have made this the hot venue for musical theatre on the South Bank, challenging both the nearby Union and Menier Chocolate Factory. Following on from rapturously received productions of Parade and Mack and Mabel, director Thom Southerland has turned his hand to a new adaptation of musical comedy Victor/Victoria.
With a book written by Blake Edwards for his wife Julie Andrews, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Henry Mancini and posthumously completed by Frank Wildhorn, the show on paper isn’t necessarily that distinguished. In 1930s Paris, English soprano Victoria Grant is struggling to get a job but a chance encounter with Toddy, her instant gay best friend, thrusts her into the limelight as he hits on the idea of Victoria pretending to be a female impersonator and so Count Victor Grazinski is born, taking the cabaret scene by storm and causing all kinds of sexual confusion as men find themselves irresistibly drawn to this enthralling new performer.
But though the story may be a little flimsy, its plot turns contrived, its sexual politics somewhat dated, there is a genuinely good heart to this production. The plea for tolerance, equality, the freedom to love whoever we want – man or woman and to not have to live life hiding one’s true identity in the shadows can never be heard often enough, and it is given real currency here with Anna Francolini’s expressive passion and Richard Dempsey’s charismatic warmth.
Francolini’s Victoria is the woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman and is beautifully tender in sketching out the troubled emotional journey of a performer determined to perform, but not quite oblivious enough to the effects on her emotional wellbeing. And she’s sheer perfection in the cabaret sequences, a vibrant, compelling presence and incredibly vocally assured. As her partner in crime, Dempsey transforms camp pal Toddy into something infinitely more moving. Still possessed of some of the funniest wisecracks you’ll hear for a long time, he plays up Toddy’s eruditeness and displays a heart that is just as full, and deserving, of longing.
Matthew Cutts and Michael Cotton offer strong support as the men around them making their own discoveries about themselves, Jean Perkins does brilliant work in a fast-revolving set of cameos and the ensemble dance up a storm. Lee Proud’s choreography fizzes with subversive humour and makes strong use of the traverse staging. Joseph Atkins’ musical direction adds colour into a score which isn’t always as distinguished as it could be, but as with so much of this production, Thom Southerland’s marshals his constituent parts into something substantially more than the whole. Forget ‘he said, she said’, I’m telling you to go.