“Not on your nellie”
The fear with shows that are receiving their UK premieres some 45 years after an abbreviated Broadway run is that there is a good reason that they have continued to languish in obscurity. But London’s fringe theatres have a good record in sorting through the duds to unearth some genuine neglected treasures and chief on the musical side, is the Union Theatre. And it is there where director Paul Foster has returned, to put on Jule Styne’s Darling of the Day – which managed just the 31 performances on Broadway, wilting in the winds of change ushered in by its contemporary Hair – and whilst it may not emerge as a hugely revelatory success, it makes for an evening of gentle pleasures.
Set in Edwardian times, the plot circles around Priam Farll, an artist of note who seizes the chance to escape the pressures of fame when his valet Henry Leek dies suddenly and a mistake by a doctor allows him to swap identities. Farll then rejoices in the freedom of living a less complicated life, which includes meeting up with working class Putney widow Alice Challice through the matrimonial agency both were using, and unexpectedly ends up in love and married. But times are tight and when a plot is hatched to bring in some extra money, it arouses the avaricious attentions of art collector Lady Vale and dealer Clive Oxford who threaten to expose the whole affair.
Styne undoubtedly knew his way around a good tune and considered this amongst one of his best scores. And in several of the ensemble numbers, beautifully enlivened by Matt Flint’s choreography, there’s a charming vitality that really works whether poking fun at the pretensions of the art world, suggesting the close-knit world of this working-class community or just speaking of the pleasures of being an artist. Foster and designer Naomi Wright wisely keep the stage of the Union uncluttered, allowing the production to embrace the audience in its warmth.
There’s no mistaking the tweeness present though and whilst this team work hard to keep it on the right side, its undemanding nature is always there. Having the central couple be somewhat older than the fresh-faced ingénues that usually front up such musical theatre fare is a refreshing change, especially when blessed with songs such as the gorgeous Let’s See What Happens. Katy Secombe imbues Alice with a amiability and emotional honesty that is a delight to watch but whilst James Dinsmore delivers Farll with an appropriate sheen of mannered professionalism as the man releasing the strictures of his upbringing, it felt he could have done more to really connect with Secombe’s Alice and give us the solid chemistry to believe in.
There’s good support from Michael Hobbs and Rebecca Caine (with Olivia Maffett singing in on press night due to laryngitis), as people only interested in the commodification of the art they buy and sell and in a strong ensemble that only occasionally overdid the Lahn-dan stereotypes, Will Keith and Danielle Morris stood out for me. Overall, it’s uncomplicated, tuneful fun and worth the trip to this under-threat venue.