Ragtime and Dessa Rose team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Lucky Stiff could be a musical version of Weekend at Bernie's - though that film came out a year after this premiered in 1988, for all I know they could both have taken inspiration from Michael Butterworth's 1983 book The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) is a dull shoe salesman with a wish to lead a more exciting life, but no drive to actually do anything about it. But opportunity falls into his lap when a long-lost American uncle dies, leaving his only living relative $6 million. Obviously there's a catch: Tony's (Ian McCurrach) wealth came late in life, and before he died he'd booked a holiday of a lifetime to take advantage of it. He doesn't see why dying should mean he has to cancel, so in order to get the money Harry has to take Tony's stuffed corpse around Monte Carlo in a wheelchair, sticking to a strict itinerary.
Naturally there's obstacles put in his way by others who'd like to get their hands on the money - like Rita (Natalie Moore-Williams,) wife of the gangster it was embezzled from, who wants it back before her husband realises she was having an affair with Tony - and was the one who (accidentally) killed him.
Despite having a corpse at its centre (McCurrach gamely flopping around in his wheelchair while everyone else gets to have fun around him,) Lucky Stiff is essentially a good-natured and old-fashioned farce straight out of a 1960s movie. It calls for a fairly broad style but even so it feels like director Paul Callen has given his ensemble a bit too much licence to ham it up in the opening scenes. I think the show's wackiness could have been allowed to build on its own - with that premise, how couldn't it? - and sure enough it's eventually charming in its own right.
Building up the central cast is what really brings it to life: Moore-Williams is the highlight as the cheerfully amoral Rita, dragging around her downtrodden brother (Tom Keeling,) whom she framed for stealing the $6 million. Reade gives the right sort of gormless central performance for the madness to go on around, and to stumble into the inevitable romance with Miss Glick (Natasha Hoeberigs,) who's trying to sabotage Harry because if he fails, the failing dog shelter where she works will get the inheritance. (I couldn't help thinking it's no wonder it's failing, as she regularly tells us it houses TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND dogs. A quick Google tells me Battersea can hold 260 dogs and 220 cats at any given time, which just confirms my theory that TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND is way too ambitious. That, or they're just really, really bad at rehoming those dogs.)
The songs are fine - a highlight is cabaret singer Dominique Du Monaco's (Lydia Marcazzo) flirty "Speaking French," another of those scenes that brings out the piece's '50 and '60s-pastiching charm. After a start that tries too hard, this settles into a fun couple of hours with a talented cast.
Lucky Stiff by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth, is booking until the 21st of October at the Union Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander.