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Phil Willmott

Review: GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES at the Union Theatre

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes It was interesting to see this delightful pocket sized revival of a classic musical, created by friends and associates of mine, two days after seeing ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD at English National Opera.

On the face of it they’re very different. BLONDES has been lovingly assembled on a tiny budget for a 60 seat Fringe Theatre, ORPHEUS is a vast juggernaut undertaking in a 2000 seat Opera House. But in each the director has had to consider how to make characters who’s attitudes are uncomfortable to modern audiences appeal to us.

Emma Rice’s approach has been to pull the opera into all sorts of odd shapes to make it more acceptable, against the caustic spirit of the original. At the Union Theatre director Sasha Regan knows better and leaves the venal, money grabbing, ruthless behaviour of two husband-hungry young women in the 1920’s to speak for itself and her approach leaves us to draw our own conclusions. This makes it a hell of a lot more fun and ends up packing more of a punch because of it.

GENTLEMEN PREFERS BLONDES is the flimsiest musical comedy from the form’s classic period, originally written as play in 1928 by Anita Loos, a rare success for a female writer of the time, and converted into a stage show with songs by Julie Stein and lyrics by Leo Robin in 1949 finally ending up as a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953. The film contains the archetypal musical routine when Monroe in a fabulous gown sings DIAMONDS ARE A GIRLS BEST FRIEND flanked by handsome men in white tie and tails. This BYE BYE BABY & I’M JUST A GIRL FROM LITTLE ROCK are the musical’s best known songs.

The story has two beautiful young women attempting to find matrimonial and financial security by hooking up with the richest young men they can find whilst taking a cruise ship around Europe. They lie, flirt, break-hearts, steal and exploit the weaknesses of everyone one around them until their mission is accomplished. They make no effort to hide their ruthlessness, we’re in on every scam, and we enjoy them the more for it.

It’s a story about the empowerment of being young and gorgeous and it’s fittingly performed by a young and gorgeous cast, many of them in their first production after training, and, fittingly given the show’s setting,  a spell as cruise ship entertainers.

As the central duo platinum blonde Abigayle Honeywill in the Monroe part displays movie star looks, in a series of delicious frocks by Penn O’Gara, formidable stage presence, a very promising comic timing and the ability to “star” in song and dance numbers. There’s nothing “promising” about Eleanor Lakin as the Russel character. She’s already a fully formed leading lady, sassy with the comedy and with a rich, gorgeous belt voice that suits this material perfectly. I expect to hear much of her.

The two have a series of adorable young men to play up against. Quite rightly they never eclipse the two girls but Aaron Bannister-Davies shows every sign that he could develop into the type of hunky leading man musical theatre is always looking for and Freddie King and George Lennan are engagingly sweet as two sappy-young prospective husbands.

There’s lovely character work from Tom Murphy as a crusty old lecher, Maria Mosquera as his long suffering but canny wife and Virge Gilchrist as a dotty alcoholic from the days when those traits was considered amusing.

Everyone else in the show sings to Harry Brennan’s stylish piano accompaniment, dances Zak Nemorin’s witty choreography and contributes cute cameos under Sasha Regan assured direction with considerable aplomb on Justin Williams’ simple but chic set. It’s all lit sumptuously by Hector Murray.

And despite the witty surface banter it finally turns out the piece does have a heart and makes a point about female survival in a man’s world, when our blonde leading lady explains the obstacles she’s had to face for her own protection.

This is a lovely evening of classic musical theatre pleasure, stylishly and simply staged and performed by the stars of tomorrow. You can also get an up-close seat for it all for a fraction of the price of front row opera tickets and have a lot more fun.