Sarah Galbraith and Jay Rincon in Steel Pier
Authors: John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), David Thompson (book)
Director: Paul Taylor-Mills
Cast: Sarah Galbraith, Jay Rincon, Aimie Atkinson, Ian Knauer, Ian Kirton, Lisa-Anne
Wood, Rob Lines, Amy Anzel and Brett Shiels.
October 25-December 15
Authors: Blake Edwards (book), Henry Mancini, Frank Wildhorn (music), Leslie Bricusse
Director: Thom Southerland
Cast includes: Anna Francolini, Richard Dempsey, Matthew Cutts, Michael Cotton, Mark Curry,
Photography: Claire Bilyard
If you can’t afford high West End ticket prices, there’s often great musical
theatre on the fringe at a fraction of the cost. Two regular purveyors of fine
shows are the Union Theatre, built into a railway arch near Waterloo and,
recently, the Southwark Playhouse built into a railway arch near London Bridge.
Both venues rely on their atmospheric surroundings rather than elaborate
scenery and you’ll often find the action happening very close to you.
Coincidentally both venues have currently transformed their spaces into dance
halls of the past in which to stage revivals of weaker musicals from great
At the Union Theatre, they’re blowing the dust off Steel Pier, one of the least
successful shows by Kander and Eb, best known for Cabaret and Chicago. This
piece is set in the fascinating world of America's depression-era dance
marathons; desperate couples competed for money and recognition by dancing
until they dropped from exhaustion in front of ghoulish crowd eager to watch
their humiliation. It's a perfect backdrop for drama, romance, tragedy and song
and dance. What a pity, then, that the writers chose to hang everything on such
an absurd supernatural plot - as if the subject wasn't interesting enough in
itself. The best scenes deal with the politics of the marathon racket with
cynical and unscrupulous management personified by Ian Knauer as a slimy master of ceremonies.
Paul Taylor Mills used to spread himself too thinly with too many scrappily
produced shows that were weakly cast. However, he recently hit his stride with a
terrific revival of Rent and this production confirms what great work he can do
when he puts his mind to it. The simple set is exquisite and he reproduces all
the show's razzamatazz on a tiny stage aided by Richard Jones’ clever
choreography that also powerfully portrays the misery beneath the epic
Charleston sessions. There's not a weak link in the cast either. Commendably
Sarah Galbraith makes us care about her journey through the silly story, Jay
Rincon is adorable as the stunt pilot who falls for her whilst Lisa-Anne Wood
and Aimie Atkinson as ruthlessly ambitious would-be starlets sing, dance and
act up a storm.
This being a Kander and Eb
show there's some pretty good songs in the mix too. You Can Always Count in Me,
Second Chance and several others are potential classics. What a shame then that
the story strains credibility.
There's a similar problem with the plot of Victor Victoria at Southwark Playhouse
which requires you to believe it’s love-at-first-sight when a straight gangster
sees a male drag artist perform as Marie Antoinette. Actually he's really a
she, desperately broke, posing as a male drag artist. This role was written for
Julie Andrews by her husband Blake Edwards and she played it on film and on
Broadway where her superstar status kept the box office buoyant despite a
sniffy critical reception.
This production is as good as you’re likely to get. In the first half director
Thom Southerland has successfully brought out the darker elements of the show,
as he recently did with Mack and Mabel at the same address, employing his trademark touch of wrapping the action in smoke and gloom – another fantastic
lighting design from Howard Hudson. Lee Proud’s high energy choreography in the
production numbers gives a glimpse of what’s to come when the fun breaks out in
act two. By the end of the evening the audience is beaming when love conquers
mistaken identities all round.
Anna Francolini is terrific in the title role bringing unexpected pathos, great
singing and dancing and a star quality that helps explains the mobster’s
infatuation. Richard Dempsey is too young to play her best friend, clapped-out
old queen Toddy (Robert Preston in the movie), but he charts the characters
journey from cynicism to stardom with such wit and poise that he wins our
It’s hard to believe the composer here, Henry Mancini, author of classics such
as the Pink Panther and Dragnet themes and Moon River broke into much of a
sweat over the VV songs though. Most of which remain earthbound despite the
best efforts of everyone involved in this revival.
Of the two shows reviewed, I think Steel Pier has the marginally better score
and Victor Victoria the better script but both enjoy terrific low-budget
productions, wonderful choreography and some terrific leads performances that
almost persuade you that these shows are unjustly neglected.
And the good news is that ticket prices are low enough to consider seeing both.
I heartily recommend you do.
Steel Pier **** (Four Stars)
Victor Victoria **** (Four Stars)
Two ingenious productions of dodgy musicals prove that fringe theatre can give
the West End a run for its money any day.