Emma Williams reconfirms her star status in this 80s musical adaptation of An Officer and a Gentleman at Leicester’s Curve Theatre ahead of a UK tour
“Way to go, Paula! Way to go!”
From its opening number (which provides an unsettling reminder that Status Quo actually had a decent tune or two), this major new musical of An Officer and a Gentleman shimmers with a sense of real quality. Some might demur at the notion of a movie remake peppered with a random assortment of pop songs from the 1980s but the resulting piece of theatre is highly enjoyable.
This is down to the integrity and craft of Nikolai Foster who rightly takes this source material (book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen from his original screenplay) seriously. We may be in 1982 but there’s no jokey visual gags about that decade here, just an over-riding sense of life on the edge for the working class community of Pensacola, Florida, looking on at the US Naval Aviation Training Facility that dominates their city.
For the officer training class, the military offers an upwards route that transcends class, ethnicity, even gender (Keisha Atwell is aces as Seegar, aiming to be the first woman to graduate). But for the women of the Pensacola Paper Factory, it feels like their only way out is to ensnare one of these sharp-suited, tight-bodied officers, regardless of whether he is a gentleman.
Aided by some vibrant choreography from Kate Prince, George Dyer’s orchestrations and arrangements of the 80s classics are carefully done, some leaving the material pretty much as is and others taking an interesting slant. ‘Kids in America’ becomes a middle-aged lament for a lost American Dream, ‘Material Girl’ is delivered with a straight-up cynicism, ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ is neatly divided between two courting couples exploring both love and sex.
It is 4-time Olivier Award nominee Emma Williams who soars here. The way she elevates the already gorgeous version of ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ that introduces the factory workers, through spine-tingling contributions to ‘Toy Soldiers’ and ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’, to a properly sensational rendition of ‘Alone’. Her interpretative skill, even on these radio staples, is entirely captivating and just gorgeous to listen to.
But she’s not just one of the best singers we have, she’s a damn fine actress too, thoroughly inhabiting the depth of Paula’s desire to live life to the fullest and her passionate frustration at how difficult that proves to be, especially with her entanglement with Jonny Fines’ Zack getting more and more complicated. Ian McIntosh’s Sid matches her for intensity, and there’s strong support too from Rachel Stanley and Corinna Powlesland representing the older generation.
Michael Taylor’s impressively realised set design looks a real treat, especially for a show that is set to tour extensively once it has left Leicester, and Ben Cracknell’s lighting holds some beautiful surprises. And that is symptomatic of the warm-hearted nature of a show that is unashamedly feel-good, even through its darker moments, and just waiting to sweep you off your feet.