“On such a night as this”
The Finborough Theatre has long been well regarded as a powerhouse of intimate (not small!) theatre, developing a strong reputation on two fronts with its rediscoveries of old plays and in the promotion of new writing. But though the space above the rather lovely wine bar is petite, their productions never are and this revival of Ivor Novello’s Gay’s the Word, on for just six performances (now extended by two), features a cast of 19. Last year’s Perchance to Dream, another of Novello’s neglected works, was a genuine pleasure to watch – introducing me to the song ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ which has never since left my head – and so anticipation was indeed high for this.
This is incredibly the first professional revival of Gay’s the Word despite it being quite the success in the early 1950s. The plot is frothy nonsense, but a bit of candy floss is delightful now and then. Gay Daventry is a leading lady whose light is fading a little and when facing bankruptcy after an out-of-town flop, seizes on the chance bequest of a keen younger actress and opens up a drama school. But it isn’t plain sailing by any means as the money starts to run out, the doddery teachers grow frustrated with the lack of talent in the student body and some dastardly smugglers also arrive to cause further mayhem. Will Gay be able to save the day with some of her trademark vitality? What do you think 😉
It is all huge amounts of ridiculous fun and performed with such loving warmth in Stewart Nicholls’ production that it is hard to resist. The format means that Novello was able to indulge several aspects of his song-writing along with lyricist Alan Melville. They poke affectionate fun at his own more ridiculous material with the spoof song ‘Ruritania’ (I was pleased to get one of the in-jokes in there); they’ve got the traditional book songs to progress the story of the show; sharp wit is given full rein in the hilarious ‘Teaching’; and Novello indulges another creative side in throwing in a couple of songs that belong to the new musical that is put on at the end. It is all recognisably Novello’s music, but I loved the variety that it allowed throughout the show, and the sense of sheer fun that it generates.
This is best exemplified by the Act 1 closer ‘Vitality’, a chirpy and warm full ensemble number brimming with pizzazz, humour and a catchy hook, and in the above-mentioned Teaching is delivered brilliantly by Eileen Page, Myra Sands, Elizabeth Seal (who was actually a member of the chorus of the original production) and Doreen Hermitage as the four women bemoan the life of a teacher cursed with substandard pupils. Elsewhere, Helena Blackman’s clear soprano is well suited to the material, but it is Sophie-Louise Dann who shines above all, pitching the performance perfectly for the intimate space and never letting us forget it is she who is running the show.
For obvious economic reasons, the Sunday/Monday show piggyback onto the set of the show having its main run, and as Outward Bound’s seating extends around the edge of the auditorium as well as the traditional end-on bank, this poses a few problems. The choreography tries its best but is often blocked out to the front, and there were a couple of moments where I had a dancer stood in front of me masking my view of the action. Some of the actors also played their scenes firmly forward but at the same time, there’s also a fabulous intimacy that comes from being so close to the playing area. Having the routines just inches from my face raised a chuckle more than once, and Dann is just superb at working the audience and taking particular care to involve us out on the fringes, indeed getting close to being wickedly flirtatious.
The entire run completely sold out before it had even started, a consequence partly of the short run but primarily a recognition of the obvious dedication and passion that the Finborough and its various teams bring to their work. Undoubtedly there are moments where the show flags a little, and some of the performances could have done with a little more preciseness in diction and lyrical clarity, but this is the type of warm-hearted production that leaves you inclined to forgive minor shortcomings and with a great big whopping smile on your face. I had long believed that Grease was the word, I think I know differently now.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 20th February – sold out but there’s always the chance of returns