Not even Tracie Bennett can save Ruthless! The Musical from itself
“Not a reason on Earth as far as I know
To write, mount and open a musical show”
Ruthless? Charging up to over £70 for a show at the Arts. Ruthless? Advertising yourselves as an all-female musical when you’ve a man in the cast. Ruthless? Putting said man above the title because he’s a talent show judge. Ruthless indeed. I didn’t mean to start off so grumpily for at times, Ruthless! The Musical is a riot of campy nonsense, your perfectly acceptable off-West-End fare. And with its kaleidoscope of nods to pretty much every example of the showbiz mom/bratty kid genre you can think of, you can see how its niche appeal might build up into cult status.
Richard Fitch’s production, the first major one in the UK, seems determined to achieve bigger things though and it doesn’t always come off. The story centres on strong-willed eight-year-old Tina Denmark who is determined to get the lead in her school play and egged on by a talent agent and a suspect family history, pursues that ambition mercilessly.
And as camp is the watchword, performances are as broad as they come in some surprisingly luxurious casting. When you’re in the experienced hands of the likes of Harriet Thorpe (the director) and Tracie Bennett (the theatre critic and grandma in what is pretty much a cameo), one is inclined to an indulgent mood. And travelling over from the 2015 off-Broadway production of the show, Kim Maresca is great fun as Tina’s mother Judy.
But with the arrival of Jason Gardiner as Sylvia St Croix, the feeling tends towards ‘huh?’. As decent a singer as he might be, he doesn’t really bring any depth to his portrayal to match the performances around him, which all benefit from strong dramatic underpinning. And no tea no shade, there’s no discernible reason why a man in drag should play this role which in the end makes it feel rather pointless (as well as taking yet another mature role away from a woman).
Ultimately, Ruthless would love you not to take it all too seriously. And I have to admit to chuckling at some of the dafter moments in Joel Paley’s book, to finding Marvin Laird’s score is perfectly serviceable, to thinking that it wasn’t necessarily that bad at all altogether, especially if you can find a decent offer on tickets. But paradoxically, it is in taking itself too seriously that Ruthless hasn’t nailed it, in its West End pretensions, where it would be much better suited getting down and dirty and having more fun south of the river somewhere.