Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Theatre review: Victor/Victoria

Thom Southerland's musical revivals have become a regular feature in Southwark Playhouse's Vault and hopefully one that will follow to wherever the new venue turns out to be. For the final show underneath Platform 1 of London Bridge he's taken us to 1930s Paris for Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's Victor/Victoria. Anna Francolini is Victoria, a talented singer trying to get onto the Paris cabaret scene but lacking the extra something special that'll get people's attention. A chance encounter with Toddy (Richard Dempsey,) a gay cabaret singer who's also just found himself out of a job, leads to an idea for what that X factor might be: Victoria will use her vocal range to cash in on the trend for female impersonators by becoming Victor - a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But the plan's instant success is put at risk when she falls for American gangster King (Matthew Cutts) and may need to reveal her true identity to get him.

Designer Martin Thomas has come up with a lot of flamboyantly androgynous costumes for Victor and "his" chorus of boys and girls, and has rearranged the Vault into a traverse with added cabaret table seating (sold at a premium, but the view from the regular seating banks is great as well.) Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud continue to use the space confidently in a number of big song and dance numbers that the cast give a breathless enthusiasm to.

What's soon apparent is that in itself, Victor/Victoria is a musical with a rather underwhelming selection of songs. There's a few exceptions like the penultimate number "Living In The Shadows" but for the most part Mancini and Bricusse's compositions struggle to come up with a real showstopper. The real strength is in the production that makes the best of the material, and Francolini is a big part of its success. Strong-voiced, she's also endearingly vulnerable and a bit lost as the woman who's got herself into a deception whose scale escalates beyond what she expected. The original film of Victor/Victoria is one I'm sure I've seen, but probably not long after it came out so I must have been pretty young and barely remember anything about it. Laurie on the other hand is a fan of the film and had seen a previous stage production (which he didn't rate) and found this one far superior, and Francolini's voice almost a match for Edwards' wife Julie Andrews, for whom the part was created.

Francolini is well supported by the rest of the cast - Dempsey's Toddy provides much of the play's camp humour but also a more emotional side as he takes a liking to King's monosyllabic bodyguard (Michael Cotton) who may in fact reciprocate. Mark Curry plays Victor's agent, Kate Nelson is funny as a scorned gangster's moll, Amira Matthews gets to step out of the ensemble for a strong solo number, and in a show with a lot of quick costumes changes for the supporting cast Jean Perkins takes the biscuit with the most amount of doubling. I wasn't entirely sold on the central romance between Victoria and King, although I'm not sure whether that's down to Cutts or the fact that having a mobster as the main love interest (Victoria's only real objection seems to be that he's coyly dishonest about what he does for a living, rather than what he does itself) makes it hard to root for the couple. Of course by now I've grown to accept massively problematic books as a staple feature of musicals.

Like Cabaret, Victor/Victoria is partly a portrait of a Europe that was becoming increasingly open-minded just before the Second World War, and it takes the intrusion of some of King's American colleagues to inject any hint of homophobia into the story. I'm not sure whether Edwards' book, which Southerland has made some revisions to, is perhaps a bit overly generous with how open-minded Parisian society was about homosexuality - and would the word "gay" have been used quite as commonly then in its modern meaning as we see in the play? But my quibbles with the show are mostly minor - it's much fluffier in its dealings with gender and sexuality than Cabaret but it's entertaining and the production makes the most of the material.

Victor/Victoria by Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, with additional music by Frank Wildhorn and revisions by Thom Southerland, is booking until the 15th of December at Southwark Playhouse's Vault.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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