“How it will astound you…”
Alongside the rightly lauded all-male Gilbert and Sullivans, the Union Theatre in Southwark has also carved a niche for itself in mounting productions of lesser-known musicals, delving into the archives much as the Finborough does with British plays, in search of a gem of a discovery, ripe for re-polishing. It’s a brave approach, not least because there is an argument that shows that collect dust on the shelves do so for a reason which in turn means that no matter how strong the production, it’s never quite starting on a full tank.
Which seems a little harsh now I’ve said it, but ultimately reflects much of how I feel about the Union’s output of late. Their productions are great value for money, demonstrate a hard-won understanding of how to use the intimate space of their railway arch, and attract a remarkable calibre of performer. But the shows haven’t made my heart sing, filled me with the inescapable joie de vivre that I crave when I see old-school musical theatre and that’s how I felt about On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.
It is quaintly charming although indubitably daft – Alan Jay Lerner’s book follows Daisy Gamble, a young woman who sees a psychiatrist to help her stop smoking but over the course of her sessions, he discovers that she has extra-sensory powers and a previous life as Melinda Wells, an 18th century English Lady. But the tangled web of relationships, past and present, that emerges ends up going nowhere, the questions about the veracity of hypnotherapy left hanging – the play really does leave much, too much, unanswered.
And significantly, Burton Lane’s score lacks the melodic quality of a great musical – it is pleasant but not much more. Fortunately, director Kirk Jameson has assembled an excellent cast who enhance the material way beyond its origins. Fresh out of A Chorus Line, Vicki Lee Taylor is gorgeously charismatic as Daisy/Melinda, switching between the two roles with panache and great impact; Nadeem Crowe’s lusciously rich vocal is well-suited to the role of Mark Bruckner her therapist, and as her fiancé (in the modern day) Howard Jenkins is a comic success.
Is it enough? Is it ok to be entertained for a couple of hours by something as sweet and frothy as this? Well, yes, that’s fine, but it doesn’t stop me longing for something more substantial than candy floss, especially when I know this theatre has so much more on the menu.