Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Victor/Victoria - Southwark Playhouse, Tuesday 6th November 2012


A penniless English soprano, Victoria Grant, auditions unsuccessfully for Labisse, owner of Cafe Luis. Toddy tries to help, but Labisse rejects her and fires him. Toddy befriends Victoria, and offers her shelter from the wet wintry night in his tiny apartment.

Richard, the ex-boyfriend, arrives at Toddy's unexpectedly to collect his things. Victoria, her only dress having shrunk in the rain, is by now wearing his hat and suit. Victoria punches Richard and kicks him out. Toddy is impressed. Richard actually thought Victoria was a man! And at that moment The Inspired Idea strikes Toddy right between the eyes. Why not? Victoria could indeed be a man - Europe's greatest female impersonator!

Toddy dreams up “Count Victor Grazinsky” - a gay Polish aristocrat. Toddy drags the reluctant Victoria to meet Andre Cassell, Paris's leading impresario, who is dubious about "Count Victor Grazinsky" until he hears "him" hit a glass-shattering high G-flat. "Victor" is in business.

His show-stopping performance at once makes him the toast of Gay Paree. The only doubter of Victor's authenticity is a dashing American gangster, King Marchan, visiting Paris with his brassy girlfriend Norma and his loyal bodyguard Squash. King is convinced Victor is a woman, and determined to prove it, but starts to doubt himself. He finds Victor attractive as a woman...but what if he's a man?

King, Norma and Squash find themselves in the adjoining hotel suite to the newly successful Toddy and “Victor”. Norma tries to seduce King, but he can’t get it up because of his worry that he is gay. Victoria bemoans to Toddy that in King she thinks she has finally found the man of her dreams, but here she is trying to convince him that she is a man, too!

“Victor” continues to take Paris audiences by storm. Norma complains to Victor and Toddy that King is shipping her back to Chicago because he fancies Victor - a man! King confronts his doubts about himself and Victor Is it possible that he, King, is falling for a man? He invites Victor and Toddy to dinner to try and find out. Labisse also has his suspicions that Victor is a woman. He invites her/him to sing. Richard's group arrives noisily in mid-song. Victor trips Richard and starts a major brawl in the club.. Outside the club, King says he doesn't care if Victor is a man, and kisses him. Victoria admits she's not a man. King says he still doesn't care, and kisses her again.

Back in the hotel, Squash barges into King's bedroom and finds King and “Victor” in bed together and stuns his boss by revealing that he, too, is gay!

Back in Chicago, Norma informs King's gangster partner, Sal Andretti, that King has dumped her for another man - and is living with "a gay Polish fairy." Sal is aghast and sets off for Paris with Norman in tow.

Toddy and Squash have become happy partners. Not so for King and Victoria, unable to be seen together in public. Victoria tells Toddy she doesn't want to be a man anymore. Toddy understands. Neither does he. Sal and the spurned Norma arrive in Paris. King admits he loves "Victor," keeping the secret. Sal, disgusted, ends their business relationship. Victoria reveals herself to Norma as a woman and is witnessed by Labisse. At Victor's “farewell performance” Labisse tries to expose him/her as a fraud. Toddy, thrilled to be back in drag, replaces Victoria in a blink.  Victoria "comes out" as a woman, and is happy. 

Victoria Grant – Anna Francolini
Caroll Todd – Richard Dempsey
King Marchand – Matthew Cutts
Norma Cassidy – Kate Nelson
“Squash” Bernstein – Michael Cotton
Henri Labisse – Ashley Knight
Andre Cassell – Mark Curry

Creative Team
Book by Blake Edwards
Music by Henry Mancini
Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Director – Thom Sutherland
Choreographer – Lee Proud
Set/Costumes – Martin Thomas
Lighting – Howard Hudson

The third in my trio of flu-ridden reviews. Happily for all concerned, by this time I was feeling much better, but if anyone would like to send me grapes anyway, please feel free. I was still a bit under the weather, which is why I was fanning myself with my handkerchief while waiting for the show to start (I was hot). Why the man sitting in the row behind felt it was necessary to tap me on the shoulder and say “Buy a programme for £2 and use that instead” is quite beyond me. I should have responded that I would love to see someone try and mop their forehead with a programme, but I was far too busy gawping at the audience members who seemed to think it was a fancy dress night; one chap appeared to be dressed as a toy solider and another looked like he had found Marie Antoinette’s lost necklace and had decided to wear it looped across the front of his jacket, fastening it with a large diamante cocktail glass-shaped brooch. Perhaps he’s one of the cast, opined Him Indoors. He wasn’t. Still, I suppose it is nice when people decide to dress up to go to the theatre. The woman sitting with the man with the programme fetish was wearing a fur coat. More about her later. But not that much later – in fact, now. Why do people seem to think that, once the music starts playing, it is still acceptable to carry on talking? Woman in Fur Coat sat there quite happily nattering away (actually, she was moaning) for at least five minutes and got a couple of my special Hard Stares. Unfortunately these had no effect whatsoever until I threw a “Will you be quiet!” in her direction, at which point she wisely decided to limit herself to the occasional sotto voce remark, but not sotto voce enough that I couldn’t hear every bloody word about how cold she was and how the theatre was grubby and it was making her fur dirty.

Anyway, rude audience members aside, I had quite a good time. The dank vaults of Southwark Playhouse aren’t exactly 1930s Paris, although there is a certain sympathetic seediness. This worked fine for a louche nightclub and cockroach-infested apartment buildings (the sound of the occasional train rumbling overhead was a nice counterpoint), but didn’t really cover the five star hotel. But vaults under a mainline railway station are going to take a bit of suspension of disbelief to overcome – they may be fine for A Christmas Carol but anything else is going to be a bit of work. News is that the theatre is moving to an abandoned 60s office block just down the road in Newington Causeway. That will be interesting….. The length of the performance space causes directorial issues – best to sit the middle and play “head tennis” than sit at one end and miss a lot of the action. If you do have to sit at one end, the end away from the orchestra is better. Sit at the pricey “nightclub tables” and you will miss a heck of a lot. Not all the direction works – Act 2 is ushered in by a woeful magic act (which I came perilously near to ruining by being too thorough in my inspection of Dafydd Gwyn Howell’s equipment (no sniggering at the back please – he may be a hairy Welshman but there is no truth in any rumours you may hear). Although the Playhouse obviously operates on a shoestring, there are 8 people in the orchestra (2 more than the production of 9 to 5 I recently saw and which has Dolly Partons’ megabucks behind it), all working like stink and deservedly getting their own on-stage bow at the end.

The shoestrings are apparent in the wig and costume departments. Decent wigs are shockingly expensive to hire, and bad wigs just as pricey. Several of those sported in this production look uncannily like they have not long before been scuttling round in the darkness; I imagine the Wig Mistress rushing off into the gloom with a torch and a big stick, hearing a loud thump and a squeal and then seeing her return triumphantly holding her prey at arm’s length and beaming “Another tenner saved from the budget, chaps”. Poor Anna Francolini often has to wear two at once – a bladder over her own hair, a “Victor” wig, a “night club routine” wig and often some sort of headdress perched on top just to add insult to injury. The things one puts up with to earn a crust. Practically everyone else wears their own hair – although I couldn’t work out whether Jean Perkins, who played several small parts had subjected her personal dead rat to ministrations with a wire brush and a can of Elle-Net or was just having a terrible hair day.

Costumes, in the main, looked similarly tired. The only properly fitting dinner suit in the entire production is obviously Mark Curry’s own, and his own properly polished black shoes stuck out like a sore thumb. Ms. Francolini’s dress shirt looked as if it had been used to wipe up a spillage out in the bar, and a judiciously applied damp sponge and hot iron wouldn’t go amiss on her dinner suit either. In the awful “Louis says” number (which was jettisoned for the film and no wonder, because its dire), poor Miss F has to wear what are meant to be Marie Antoinette’s expensive silks and satins but which actually look like a badly made-to measure sofa cover and a pile of slowly unravelling cotton wool. Yes, I know, I know. Costumes are expensive to hire or make. But frankly, if someone outside had been rattling a collection tin in aid of the Costume Department, I’d have gladly dropped some money in. Perhaps Mrs Fur Coat could have wafted her Platinum Card in their direction – she certainly moaned enough. About 20 minutes into the show, one character coughs several times and blames “the damp”. Mrs. Fur Coat chimed in “DUST!” very loudly. The closing number is woefully underdressed and Richard Dempsey has to wear a feather head-dress that looks like an ostrich with alopecia that has been savaged by an overly-protective mother meerkat.

Wigs, costumes and rude audience members aside (Mrs. Fur Coat and Mr. Programme left in the interval, thankfully), there is a good show going on here with some fine performances. Its just sad that they are fine performances seen in a production with lacklustre values; they deserve better. Anna Francolini works her tits off in the title roles, making the daft plot seem believable and bringing a warmth to the role that rather eluded Julie Andrews in the film. She has a lovely mellow speaking voice and a great vocal range. Richard Dempsey, although perhaps a little too young for the pivotal role of Toddy, is so sweet and charming that he just makes you want to ply him with nourishing chicken soup and organise his sock drawer. Basically, he is everyone’s Best Gay Friend – Dispenser of Good Advice, Shoulder to Cry On, Provider of Waspish One-Liners in a Crisis. I must remember the line “There is nothing so inconvenient as an old queen with a head cold” for future use. Kate Neilson rather lets the character of Norma Cassidy go begging, however – what could have been a great comic turn is rather thrown away. One wonders what Mark Curry is doing here at all – Cassell is a “nothing part”, and although Curry is not exactly “A List”, its still bizarre to see him on stage in this. The dancers all work their socks off and the choreography is wonderful. Again, they deserve to be in a show with higher production values. They certainly deserve better costumes. There’s not a soul on stage who isn’t pulling more than their weight – this company is the dictionary definition of the phrase “Teamwork”.

Anyway, this is a good little show. Buy a ticket well in advance (like air fares, the closer to the date of the performance you buy them, the more expensive they are), wrap up warm, don’t wear your fur coat, get there early (unreserved seats!) so you can sit in the middle of the row, don’t chatter to your companions once the music has started, enjoy the performances, don’t compare Ms. Francolini with Julie Andrews if you can help it, compare her favourably with Julie Andrews if you must, blank out the “Louis Says” number if you can, put a few coppers in the collecting tin for costumes if you see one, and try not to ruin any magic tricks if you are asked to rummage in a cloth bag. - Telegraph reviewer can’t count the number of people in the orchestra.

Not in the original production, but written for the film to replace "Louis Says". 

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