Review: A Damsel in Distress, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I’m a poached cake without a piece of toast
Yorkshire pudding without a beef to roast”

It’s no secret at all that I love a good old-fashioned musical but it is hard to feel that we need more of them in the world. PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress started life as a novel in 1919, has been adapted on both stage (with Ian Hay) and screen, where it was augmented by a suite of songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and now finds itself as a piece of musical theatre with a new book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson and vibrantly directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. 

With a cast that contains Richard Dempsey, Isla Blair, Nicholas Farrell, Sally Ann Triplett, plus the requisite Strallen (Summer, in this case), there’s little about which to complain. Yet I find myself grumbling a little, the bar at Chichester has been set so extraordinarily high with their recent successes, that even a very good production can seem a little lacklustre by comparison. And with so many great ‘traditional’ musicals of this form in the canon, do we really need new ones to be constructed? 

The plot revels in its silliness in the archetypal England of Wodehouse’s writings. At the Savoy Theatre, Perkins want his American director George Bevan to make the show they’re putting on more fun and over in Gloucestershire, Lady Caroline Byng is determined to make her niece Maud Marshmoreton marry her son Reggie to secure the family estate and its turreted towers. Maud runs away and falls head over heels for George when they meet by chance but in order for their romance to work, there’s many an obstacle to overcome and of course, they gotta put on a show!

It is largely daffy and delightful and naturally, brilliance abounds in part. Christopher Oram’s set design is a consistently inspired piece of work (if a little over-reliant on the lifts); Nicholas Farrell is an unexpected treasure as he proves it’s never too late to fall in love; Sam Harrison (so beloved from his Salad Days) shines in the company; Richard Dempsey’s twittish Reggie (he of the poached egg song…) is adorable; Isla Blair’s redoubtable Lady Caroline is fiercely dragon-like; Sally Ann Triplett is back!; the list really does go on and on.

But a story needs to be more than entertaining sub-plots and the central romance of George and Maud never really clicked into gear for me. Fleeshman is perfectly serviceable as the director dreaming of art over entertainment but Maud suffers from some severe under-writing by Wodehouse/Hay/Sams/Hudson (men, all of them) and Strallen plays her with too much of a cold distance for us ever to take Maud into our hearts as a leading lady to truly root for. 

The transfers into the West End for these big Chichester musicals are pretty much de rigueur these days, although it took a little longer than usual for Guys and Dolls to make the leap as it finally slots into the Savoy once Gypsy completes its run. And A Damsel in Distress delivers just the kind of feel-good frothy fun that should attract enough of a West End crowd to thrive, even if I craved something just a little more substantial with my silliness.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 27th June 

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