Ivor Novello was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his day. He specialised in vast lavish productions at Drury Lane, soupy, rather derivative romantic ballads, impossibly Ruritanian settings. It’s hardly surprising that he now seems impossibly dated, as ALW no doubt will become in his turn. However, his last musical, ‘Gay’s The Word’, marked something of a change of direction in response to the American invasion led by ‘Oklahoma!’: a new, sharper lyricist in Alan Melville, comparatively pared-down resources, and an acknowledgement of some contemporary reality, if only of the theatrical kind.
The story is simply told. Musical comedy star Gay Daventry, having sunk all her money into a disastrous flop, is forced to open a drama school by the coast, which also fails, but leads to her making a triumphant comeback in a new revue. Between times there are two star-crossed young lovers and a couple of comic gangsters of the type popular at the time (think ‘Kiss Me Kate’. ‘One Touch of Venus’). On this wispy thread of a plot are hung excerpts from no less than three shows-within-a-show: the failed operetta ‘Ruritania’, the drama school end-of-term showcase, and the new revue. Unfortunately, it rather breaks under the strain.
However, it does allow Novello to have his cake and eat it. ‘Ruritania’ is a delicious self-parody, and by far the most successful section of the show; anyone thinking ‘Spamalot’ invented the musical commentary about itself can see the rudimentary origins here. The chorus tell us that “the delights of Glamorous Nights are no longer a mania” and that “Since ‘Oklahoma!’ we’ve been in a coma”. They long for a triumphant return “Back at Drury Lane-ia”. Unfortunately, coming at the start, it makes almost everything else a bit of a let-down, and subsequently it comes only fitfully alive.
That it does so at all is largely down to the high-wattage performance of Sophie-Louise Dunn. ‘Gay’s the Word’ was originally written around the talents of Dame Cicely Courtneidge, then pushing sixty and rather in the doldrums career-wise. The word most often associated with her is ‘indefatigable’, and it applies equally to Dunn. She is rarely offstage, and when she is, the soufflé usually collapses. It’s a highly mannered, knowing performance, half Geraldine McEwan and half county horsewoman. You almost expect a pack of baying hounds in her wake. Her charm bludgeons you into submission, in the same way that Ken Dodd’s 5-hour live comedy does: “Didn’t like that? Well here’s another…. And another…. And another…” If it’s possible to twinkle aggressively, Dunn does. She’s impossible to resist.
The other high spot in the show is the quartet ‘Teaching’, which is sung by the quartet of elderly drama coaches that Gay employs. These include a radiant Elizabeth Seal, who was in the original 1950 production, and the formidable Gaye Brown. These four troupers punch out the material with admirable verve and timing, and rightly bring the house down. I was smitten with awestruck thought that between them they must represent something like 200 years on the stage. A very special moment, and it’s almost worth seeing the show for this alone.
But despite some very heavy doctoring of the script by Richard Stirling, the book is a hopeless mess. Infuriatingly inconsistent, improbable in a heavy-handed way, fluffing its emotional climaxes and narratively incompetent, it fails to generate either interest or momentum.
This problem is compounded by some of the numbers. Alan Melville was a revue writer, most notably of a trio of shows for Hermione Gingold, which means his work has a static, self-contained quality. At its best, it reminds you of Flanders and Swann, at its worst a rather mechanical trawl through a rhyming dictionary (Vitality – originality – personality – topicality etc). Either way, the show has to crank itself up all over again at the end of every number, which makes particularly the second half seem very long indeed.
Students and lovers of musical theatre history will need no encouragement to get down to Jermyn Street. Others might need more persuasion.