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Stuart King

Review: ME AND MY GIRL at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Me And My Girl This production seems almost certain to grace the West End in the run-up to Christmas. Chichester Festival Theatre has been riding the crest of a wave in recent years with a swathe of high profile London transfers (most notably productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Gypsy), garnering awards, earning plaudits and generating phenomenal West End box office.

On the strength of opening night, this revival of ME AND MY GIRL felt like a worthy successor to those productions, possessing a fresh and playful edginess, due in no small part to the fantastic new musical arrangements of MD par excellence Gareth Valentine. When coupled with the snazzy, toe-tapping choreography of Alistair David, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this delightfully naïve and romantic piece all over again.

Many will remember Mike Ockrent’s long running production of the perennial favourite which clocked-up over 3,300 performances at the Adelphi Theatre from the mid-80s. With music by Noel Gay and original book/lyrics by Douglas Furber and L Arthur Rose (later augmented by Stephen Fry) the story is set in the late 1930s and follows the adventures of an unrefined Cockney barrow boy Bill Snibson who, (as a result of his mother’s long forgotten romantic dalliance with a member of the peerage), is set to leave behind his Lambeth roots and inherit the Earldom of Hareford. Of course the rags-to-riches yarn follows familiar territory — the softening of unsophisticated edges, accompanied by an equal softening in the initially stony and unaccepting hearts and minds of those in the exalted upper echelons. Opposing ends of the societal spectrum at first appall and later educate, accept and embrace each other. It’s all utterly unrealistic, adorable baloney of course, and makes for wholly unapologetic, charming and optimistic entertainment, at a time when British society is in need of a strong dose of cohesion and positivity.

Set designer Lez Brotherston extends the magic and in one particularly notable second half scene, he invokes imaginative and effective use of strong ethereal imagery for Bill’s lamp-post lament. The scene descends into a nightmarish ballet sequence (imagine Hitchcock got his hands on "American In Paris") and as Bill drifts, searching for his gal who has absconded, he is assailed by prostitutes and various Sally lookalikes played-out in front of an enormous, phenomenally realistic light-box full-moon. It adds a touch of jeopardy to the frivolousness and we see Bill begin to question both his sanity and ability to retain his sweetheart Sally, whilst meeting the noblesse obligeexpectations of his newly embraced extended family. It was an unexpected and terrifically effective counterpoint to the tongue-in-cheek fluff, which the dancers in particular relished.

Sadly, after a week of dazzling preview audiences, headliner Matt Lucas bailed on opening night to rest his throat and it was left to director Daniel Evans to announce to the expectant but understandably disappointed audience that his new hero was understudy Ryan Pidgen who ironically (according to the programme) has a wealth of stage productions under his belt, including "The Show Must Go On" - Matt Lucas take note!

Caroline Quentin commands her scenes with gusto as Aunt Maria, Duchess of Dene and unexpectedly, for this reviewer, is possessing of a magnificent and powerful soprano voice (who knew?)! As she takes Bill under her wing, determined to mould him into a debonair successor worthy of his title, they have some great opportunities to engage in banter. In one instance she resignedly confides that when she is down in the dumps, she usually buys a hat. "Oh that's where you get 'em" responds Bill. The show is full of such daft, but universally winning and quintessentially British humour. Clive Rowe as Sir John Tremayne delivers the trademark on-stage charm and timing for which he has become beloved of audiences and it was an unexpected delight to witness the fantastic Jennie Dale belting and tapping her way through scenes as the staunchly irrepressible family solicitor Parchester.

With Chichester's Caroline, Or Change already due to occupy the Playhouse Theatre from November, it remains only for the powers that be to find an appropriate London home to house Me and My Girl for the very welcome West End invasion to continue.