Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Theatre review: Promises, Promises

The description on the website threatens "a triumph of 1960s sexual work-place politics" but also promises Burt Bacharach songs, making Southwark Playhouse's latest musical revival something of a mixed prospect. Bacharach provides the music, Hal David the lyrics and Neil Simon the book for Promises, Promises, the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder film The Apartment. Chuck Baxter (Gabriel Vick) has a junior role in a huge New York insurance firm, but doesn't realise he also has a secret weapon in the form of his tiny apartment, only a couple of blocks away from the office. Numerous married executives are having affairs with young women working at the company, and they talk Chuck into letting them use his apartment for sex, in return for putting in a good word for him at work. He finally gets his promotion when the personnel director Sheldrake (Paul Robinson, not the one from Neighbours) finds out and joins the club.

But Chuck is devastated to find out that Sheldrake's mistress is Fran (Daisy Maywood,) the dinnerlady he's been trying to build up the courage to ask out.

That worrying-sounding sexual politics does seem to have been an issue for many people; personally it didn't register quite as badly as, say, Show Boat's cheerfully pro-murder and pro-racism moments, because although there's plenty of 1968 attitudes that would have been best left there, the show is at least partly aware that it's not all fine. The chorus of cheating executives are a pretty sad, sleazy bunch and while it's hard to really like Chuck as much as we're meant to since he's party to it all in return for possible promotion, at least he does eventually understand he's not much better than the men he's helping cheat. There's still some actual sexism in there - Chuck finally asking Sheldrake to let him have Fran if he's done with her, and most of the women have very little agency of their own - but I've seen worse, and at least Bronagh Lagan's production acknowledges that the show's built around some creepy behaviour*.

But if there's not a lot to get angry about there's not a lot to get excited about either, especially in the first act. Bacharach's songs are of course good, and have enough of his own '60s identity to make the show stand out from other classic musicals. Vick and Maywood have strong voices (eventually even getting over the usual shonky sound balance that lets the band drown them out) and make the best of a romantic couple with little to make you root for them. The way Chuck's dialogue is written makes it hard for Vick to deliver without being reminiscent of Jack Lemmon, who played the role in the Wilder film. So it seems strange to give Maywood a haircut that makes her look a lot like Lemmon's co-star Shirley MacLaine - when most productions try to develop their own identity, I found it a bit distracting wondering why this one went so far the other way.

There's significant improvement after the interval, in large part down to the arrival of two comic characters who are actually funny, and given great performances: Alex Young injects new energy into the second act opener "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing," and her Marge is also the only female character who gets to treat sex on her own terms. And while the show also gets better at showing a more serious side, as being the Other Woman starts to affect Fran's mental state, this gets nicely undercut by John Guerrasio's blunt Dr. Dreyfuss. The plot still feels pretty baggy here - with 40 minutes until the end I was wondering where the story had left to go - but this act also contains the best song "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," even in a pretty simple arrangement here showing why it's the musical's Breakaway Pop HitTM. Promises, Promises does have some moments that really bring it to life but not enough to justify the amount of time it demands of the audience.

Promises, Promises by Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, based on the film The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond, is booking until the 18th of February at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Claire Bilyard, Alastair Muir.

*although it's a fairly large cast so I did somewhat question the fact that it's entirely white

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