On paper, it looks like a dream team. Jule Styne with The Bells are Ringing, Gypsy and Funny Girl to his credit wrote the music; Yip Harburg (Wizard of Oz, Finian’s Rainbow) did the lyrics, who had penned two of the most perfect songs ever written – Over the Rainbow and Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Librettist Nunnally Johnson, though better known as a film writer/director, had at least won an Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath. But despite the pedigree, it only ran for 31 performances when it first appeared in 1968.

Looking at the Union Theatre production, you can see why. It wasn’t just the troubled production history, or that it was out of tune with the hippy/rock zeitgeist. No, the basic problem is the concept of an intimate, character-driven musical which lacks convincing characters.

You can see why it appealed. For Styne it offers the opportunity for a return to his English Music Hall roots, with emotional moments driven almost to operetta; for the left-wing Harburg (who was blacklisted from Hollywood in the McCarthy years) there’s the opportunity for a scathing attack on the commercialism of the art world. For all three, pushing into their 70s, there’s the chance to celebrate an autumnal romance between people “who know the grace of a warm embrace when the heart is folly-free”. The book, however, and the timorous Arnold Bennett novel on which it is based, lack the strong pegs on which to hang those enthusiasms.

Priam Farll is a painter who returns to London after twenty years exile in Java, escaping the vultures who run the art world of Edwardian London. Alice Challice is a working class girl who has been corresponding with his valet, Henry Leek. When Farll finds the world on his trail again, he uses the death of the valet as an opportunity to switch identities, marry Alice and settle into domestic bliss in the then-plebeian district of Putney. But the world comes after him again, and the action climaxes in a Gilbertian trial where the real question is whether Farll is more use to the upper classes as himself, or as Leek.

The axis of the action is provided by the twin worlds of the Bond Street gallery and the Putney pub. In the gallery we only see the picture frames, not the pictures – the toffs aren’t interested in what they see, only in what they can own (“Scratch a connoisseur and you’ll find an auctioneer”). We only see real pictures in Putney, where real people, though unlettered, draw real pleasure from them.

Harburg fitfully shows his mettle; his patter songs of the art world are witty and intricate. He also has the great lyricist’s ability to place the significant word, as when Farll fondly recalls his jungle life with the “wholesome chimpanzees”, or, in a vision of the Empire in collapse, Nelson “tearing his marble hair”. Styne equally can pull out the stops in a good old Cockney knees-up, “Not on your Nelly”.

But these gems are fitful, because of the central implausibility of the plot. The improbable, faux-droll names are a dead giveaway. Farll is a mass of contradictions – this supposed rebel against society, a wild man/Gauguin figure (who has a valet??) – comes across as utterly conventional, and any subversion is knocked on the head by the notion that all artists are really gentlemen. Any potential for cross-class tension in the Alice/Farll relationship which would make it interesting is ignored, while Alice herself is a quivering butterball of ‘heart-of-gold-I-know-my-place’ cliché.

The production doesn’t help. A bare stage with fussy furniture changes, and costumes and hairstyles only approximately in period, do little to establish a society in which the action takes place. Katy Secombe gives Alice a lot of wellie, but seems more concerned with her relationship with the audience than with her partner. James Dinsmore seems to have given up on the cipher that is Farll.

Ultimately this is an American, Hollywood ‘gor-blimey/I-say-old-chap’ view of England, adding an additional layer of patronage to an already deeply snobbish story. The real comparator for Darling of the Day is David Heneker’s 1963 Half a Sixpence, set in the same period and equally concerned with class divides. Listen to Heneker’s affectionate score and you realise all the felt life which Darling of the Day is missing. Against this, Harburg, Styne and Johnson, for all their research, are merely tourists, and it shows.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

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The Blurb

When his valet dies suddenly, the famous painter Priam Farll resolves to escape the limelight by changing identity and passing himself off as the down-to-earth Henry Leek. His relief at "getting out of this world alive" is soon complicated by the arrival of Alice Challice, a merry-ish widow with designs on him. Despite its London setting, this delightful tale of marriage and other mistakes has never been staged in the UK before and boasts an exuberantly witty score by Jule Styne.

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