“It’s bound to be right on the night”
I remember being thoroughly enamoured of Gay’s The Word at the Finborough back in 2012 and its leading lady Sophie-Louise Dann before I really knew who she was. Now I’m a full paid-up member of her fan club, I wish I had been able to appreciate how great (and rare) a leading lady performance it was. This 1951 Ivor Novello show received its first ever revival here but whereas sometimes one can tell exactly why something has been collecting dust on the shelf, Stewart Nicholl’s production revealed a hidden gem.
As with much of Novello’s work, it is sparkly and silly but sweetly and sincerely done so that its genuine warmth elevates the whole affair. It helps that he was poking fun at his own reputation for daffiness in his writing and the show-in-a-show conceit allows for a wider variety of musical styles to be incorporated. But it is classic, old-school musical theatre through and through with songs that sound as instantly recognisable as if they’ve been played over and over in music halls and theatres across the country for decades.
And this is in no small part due to the excellent casting. Dann’s vivacious but down-on-her-luck leading lady lights up her every song with her determination to make her new drama school a success. Enthusing ensemble and listeners alike, her calls for ‘Vitality’ and ‘Gaiety Glad’ have a wonderful knees-up spirit and she presides over proceedings with great élan. Helena Blackman’s crystalline soprano makes an ideal younger second lead with the customary romantic subplot driving the action alongside the drama of whether the end-of-term show will save the school or not.
Another highlight is ‘Teaching’ when the trials of substandard pupils are shared by veterans of the classroom, allowing Elizabeth Seal (an original cast member no less), Doreen Hermitage, Eileen Page and Myra Sands a grand moment to shine. This warm-hearted, nostalgia-infused glow spreads across the whole soundtrack and far beyond too, Gay really is the word.