“I think, I think…”
Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour flopped on Broadway which explains a little of why it has taken 36 years for it to make its premiere in Europe. Another reason is the strange tone of Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, based on a play by SN Behrman, which plots an odd couple roadtrip and ensuing love triangle against the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Polish compatriots Jewish intellectual SL Jacobowsky and Catholic aristocrat Colonel Stjerbinsky reluctantly join forces in Paris to make their escape, picking up the Colonel’s French lover Marianne on the way, and ending up in all sorts of jolly japes and adventures which are more Boy’s Own than Wilfred Owen.
Director Thom Southerland has great form with musical revivals though and aspects of his work here are superb. Phil Lindley’s approach to designing this show should be studied by all aspiring designers as an inspired way of dealing with the intimacy of a space such as the Finborough. His European map-featuring set unfolds multipally like the pages of a pop-up book to take us from the front seat of a car to the heights of a high-wire, the stillness of a church and the bracing winds of a harbour amongst many other locations, and it does so with real elegance. I’d only question why Belgium appears to have been erased from the map and given how much Saint-Nazaire is referred to in the show, whether that might have been added too.
The show itself can’t quite hide why it has long been collecting dust though. The constituent parts never really sit easily together, with no sense of peril ever really convincing for the most part (“you must get on this ship instantly” “hold on while we sing two songs…”), and the putative love triangle feels more of a distraction than a necessarily integral part of the story. It’s tough to care for Marianne in particular who casually accepts her housekeeper’s good wishes whilst leaving her to the mercies of the fast-advancing Nazis and generally seems more concerned for her caged bird’s safety than any of the people she meets.
But the quality of the singing is a huge saving grace – Alastair Brookshaw’s Jacobowsky is filled with a moving but pragmatic optimism, Nic Kyle’s Colonel speaks so effectively of the world he’s been forced to leave behind and the way in which their relationship develops has an emotional power far beyond what has been written. In the company, Laurel Dougall stands out as the compassionate and determined circus woman who selflessly saves our trio. And Southerland’s staging, along with Cressida Carré’s choreography, is perfectly suited to the occasion, bringing in wit – Mother Pauline’s admonition to sing quietly is inspired and of course there are nuns, you can’t flee the Nazis without them…- as well as pathos wherever possible.
The only real mis-step on Southerland’s behalf comes in the sole chasing Nazi which has more than a hint of ‘Allo ‘Allo about it as Blair Robertson’s SS Captain repeatedly turns up on his own to catch our heroes, despite the reminders that there’s thousands of Germans in the area. Even having just one more soldier with him would have sidestepped the unintentionally comic and upped the menace, though I do appreciate it is a fine balancing act with a show of this size. And ultimately, what Southerland and his company have achieved here is pitched just right for the material, which is far from without flaws but no little charm as well.