Review|Xanadu at Southwark Playhouse: 'A giddy high from start to finish'

Has there ever been a show as side-splittingly funny and joyously irresistible as Xanadu? If there has then I haven’t seen it. Adapted from the 1980 film, this delirious musical comedy rollerskates into Southwark Playhouse in a blaze of legwarmers, balls of the disco variety, deliberately bad Aussie accents and terrific songs performed by a cast who look like they can’t believe their luck in landing such fun jobs.
Carly Anderson and the company of Xanadu (2)
It’s an adaptation that’s also a pisstake of a truly terrible film. A box office disaster which inspired the inauguration of the Golden Raspberry Awards aka the Razzies, it starred Olivia Newton-John (fresh from Grease and as wooden in performance as she was wonderful of voice) as a muse named Kira who comes down from Olympus via a Venice Beach mural – or something ludicrous like that – to help an artist named Sonny realise his dream of… wait for it… opening a roller disco.
The genius of the stage version, which started in a tiny Greenwich Village theatre before transferring to Broadway, is in how it accepts, lampoons and celebrates the movie’s sheer stupidity with jokes that knowingly comment on everything from Olivia’s incongruous g’day mate Australian twang to Sonny’s valley boy hippy-dippyness.
Carly Anderson and the company of Xanadu
In the States, Sonny was played by Attitude favourite Cheyenne Jackson and I’m glad to report that Samuel Edwards is just as good over here – a lanky looker with a cracking pair of legs who nails the character’s loveable goofiness and sings up a storm. Kerry Butler, who was Penny Pingleton in the original stage production of Hairspray, was Kira on Broadway and again I’m glad to report that Carly Anderson is every bit her equal – hilarious and beguiling and as animated as Newton-John was awkward.
The supporting cast are all flawless, with Alison Jiear (of Jerry Springer The Opera/I Just Wanna Dance fame) a particular standout but absolutely everyone involved – Nigel Barber, Lizzy Connolly, Micha Richardson, Joel Burman, Nicholas Duncan and Emily McGougan – deserving of a mention. Ditto director Paul Warwick Griffin, who gets the tone just right, designer Morgan Large, who ups the kitsch factor, and choreographer Nathan M. Wright, who has the cast busting some very camp moves.
XANADU - Carly Anderson as 'Kira' and Samuel Edwards as 'Sonny'. Photo credit Paul Coltas. Lower res
The book is by Douglas Carter Bean (whose other credits include cross-dressing comedy To Wong Foo on screen and The Little Dog Laughed on stage) and it’s got one brilliant line after another. The music, meanwhile, is as fabulous as the story is purposely naff. The songs that ELO head honcho Jeff Lynne and Olivia’s frequent collaborator John Farrer wrote for the film – like Magic,Suddenly and of course the camp-as-leggings theme tune – are all here, plus a few from the ELO vaults like Evil Woman and Don’t Walk Away. 
The Olivia classic Have You Never Been Mellow is also trotted out and there’s a treat for London theatregoers: Physical has been added to the tracklist to give Jiear something to really tear into. ONJ’s biggest hit is a second act high point but honestly, Xanadu is on a giddy high from start to finish. If it doesn’t skate its way into the West End I’ll eat my disco balls.
Xanadu is at the Southwark Playhouse, London, until November 21st. For tickets visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or call 020 7407 0234
WORDS: Simon Button