Thursday, 16 March 2023

Theatre review: The Great British Bake Off Musical

Would you believe, my friend Ian says that sometimes he chooses what shows to come to with me because I've booked some camp old nonsense. The nerve! Anyway here's The Great British Bake Off Musical, a stage tribute to the international TV phenomenon best known for contestants who become instant best friends, technical challenges where the entire recipe reads "make a Latvian Backwards Cake," and a commitment to smutty double entendres that means nobody can make a blancmange without an accidentally-on-purpose pegging reference. The character names in Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary's musical are made up, but the judges in particular make no disguise of who they're based on: Phil Hollinghurst (John Owen-Jones) is a silver-haired Scouse baker known for his blue eyes, bad jokes and dishing out handshakes as if they have inherent value. Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne) is a Dame fond of statement necklaces, colourful glasses and desserts that are 90% booze.

The real show's gone through a lot more presenters than judges, so Kim & Jim (Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige) are a bit more of an amalgam of past and present hosts, although they make a plausible pair (and there's an audience cheer when they namecheck Mel & Sue.)

Throwing even more characters into the food processor are the contestants, who follow some familiar archetypes: Hipster Dezza (Jay Saighal) who never stops mentioning that he's vegan and is guaranteed to go home first; designated mum of the season Babs (Claire Moore,) who snaps back at "the male judge;" teenager Hassan (Aharon Rayner) who took up baking on a whim and proved a natural; and influencer Izzy (Grace Mouat,) who's trying to fit into the chummy atmosphere and pretend she's not desperately competitive.

The central character is Gemma (Charlotte Wakefield,) a standby contestant who fulfills the role of the dark horse, lacking confidence and quietly making it through the early stages before becoming a serious contender by the end. She also gets a romantic interest in widower Ben (understudy Stuart Hickey,) which is probably more of an attempt to introduce some kind of plot than a reference to the show - Bake Off isn't particularly known for pushing romances between the contestants, unless you count that time the papers were so determined Henry must be banging someone that they convinced themselves he was in a throuple with Michael and Alice.

Rachel Kavanaugh's production has a lot of fun elements but can't disguise the fact that Brunger and Cleary's show is all over the place. It's a good job the TV show has so many fans, because the best moments are the ones that cater to them with in-jokes about the series, most notably a scene that combines the annual request to make ice cream on the hottest day of the year, custardgate, bingate, several instances of Floorcake! and the John Whaite bloodbath into a single sequence. The songs also fare better when they make witty references to the competition's recurring memes, like when the contestants sitting on a row of stools is compared to Westlife's lineup to give us a '90s boyband number about trying to get a Hollighurst handshake.

Less successful are the attempts to replicate the double-entendres: Owen-Jones has an entire song about slapping strudel dough around that's entirely wanking puns but barely raised a laugh. Gwynne is the most consistently entertaining, both in the smutty gags and in her wandering around with cans of G&T falling out of her pockets. And then downright disastrous are the attempts at a more serious side, with the show clumsily jumping into scenes about bereavement, references to how the show's diversity defines multicultural Britishness, and a recurring song about Francesca's (Cat Sandison) problems conceiving a baby with a "bun in the oven" motif, that's meant deadly earnestly but comes off in bad taste.

It's a completely official parody with the full backing of Love Productions so it's not surprising if The Great British Bake Off Musical has little real bite, and its stronger parts are those that offer fans exactly what you would expect: Affable nods to the show's recurring memes and most famous "controversies." The cast are all strong although they never stand a chance against Gwynne when she's centre-stage, throwing herself into the ridiculousness with such gusto you suspect she's the biggest Bake Off fan in the building. But the show's wildly uneven, and between fun highlights there's a lot of scenes that are flat as a pancake. Not an ordinary pancake, obviously, some Bolivian pancake you've never heard of and now have twelve minutes to make from scratch.

The Great British Bake Off Musical by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary is booking until the 13th of May at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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