How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying goes for a little too much zany at Southwark Playhouse
“It is essential that the company be a big one; it should be at least big enough that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing”
Director Georgie Rankcom is clearly a fan of the zany. Their brash and bold approach to tricky musicals (qv Anyone Can Whistle) is in evidence once again at Southwark Playhouse, this time with 1961’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and these productions are clearly spiritual twins. Lurid colour schemes and a cartoonish mindset may look fabulous but only take you so far though, this much zany soon becomes wearing.
It doesn’t necessarily help that Frank Loesser’s musical is rarely revived for a reason (it was last seen in London at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017 – I wasn’t sure about it then…). He certainly peaked with Guys and Dolls and whilst this show is very much its Cousin Greg musically, its workplace satire is nowhere near sharp enough to survive its near-total outdatedness in terms of office life today.
The title comes from a self-help book that window cleaner J Pierrepont Finch utilises to climb up the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company, from mailroom to management in bounding leaps. It skewers the business world as was, something which the gender-blind casting does do well to facilitate in redirecting some of the innate misogyny. But it is hard to know where the heart of the story lies when Finch embraces the capitalist mindset and all its cruelty so wholeheartedly.
Tracie Bennett is naturally great fun as jaded boss JB Biggley, Gabrielle Friedman’s Finch nails the ambiguity and cut-throat ambition of the protagonist and Allie Daniel finds real empathy and entertainment as Rosemary, the secretary who Finch both falls for and mistreats badly. But Rankcom’s lurid treatment ultimately proves too much over the overstretched runtime, which this material just doesn’t justify.