On The Twentieth Century

Though on the wrong side of forty, even I was a little young to catch the original London production of On The Twentieth Century back in 1980 - it’s one of those shows I know well from the cast recording, so the revival at the Union Theatre this Christmas is like a blind date with a pen pal after 25 years of correspondence. Twentieth Century Limited was an express train between Chicago and New York in the 1930s - the US equivalent of the Orient Express, and as the opening song tells us, 'New York in sixteen hours. Anything can happen in those sixteen hours.'The passengers' story features director Oscar Jaffee and his protégée Lily Garland. She's become a huge movie star and has wanted nothing to do with her ex-lover Jaffee after many years. He's fallen on hard times following a series of theatrical flops, so is ecstatic when religious nut, Mrs Primrose, offers to finance Jaffee's next production. Needless to say, being a farce, things don't quite go to plan.Diego Pitarch's few-frills design does an admiral job of solving the entrances problem of the challenging studio space at the Union Theatre. Enormous Art-Deco doors on casters are impressive despite the occasional Crossroads Motel-style wobble. Director Ryan McBryde squeezes all that is possible from packing trunks and racks of luggage on the back wall, employing whatever levels can be afforded by suitcase, chest or indeed portmanteau.The prime roles in this show belong to the girls. Rebecca Vere as Lily Garland steals the show from her first belter and keeps hold of it until the final curtain. Valda Aviks as the fervent Mrs Primrose gives Vere a run for her money with a terrific comic performance. Acting is deliberately non-naturalistic - the over-the-top characters could hardly be contained in subtle delivery - but it takes a couple of scenes to realise that Howard Samuels isn't a ham actor, he's sending up the Oscar Jaffee role for all it's worth. Composer Cy Coleman may be familiar to you as the tunesmith behind Sweet Charity, Barnum and City of Angels. The partnership Comden and Green, here on book and lyrics, had a large impact on both screen and stage (including Singin' in the Rain) from the early 50s until their last show, The Will Rogers Follies, in 1991 - a second collaboration with Coleman. This is the first inner-London production of the show since its London premiere thirty years ago. You'd be forgiven for wondering why, despite its undeniable pedigree, On The Twentieth Century remains obscure. I think it's because Twentieth Century appeared at the end of a more innocent era in musical theatre: a farcical backstage musical parodying the 1930s like Twentieth Century looked very old-fashioned in the 80s when shows like Evita and Sweeny Todd were taking narrative down a much darker path. Opportunities to see On The Twentieth Century don't come around too often, and that's reason enough to snap up a ticket. Maybe the time is now right for this 30s pastiche to shine in London.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

Assembly George Square Studios

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★★★★★
theSpace on the Mile

Grace Notes

★★★
Greenwich Theatre

The Jungle Book

★★★
Greenwich Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream

★★★★
Multiple Venues

A Spoonful Of Sherman

★★★★★
Pleasance Theatre

Assassins

★★★★

The Blurb

Jaffee, and his hapless entourage are on the run. Desperately trying to resuscitate his flat-lining career he books a carriage on the Twentieth Century Limited, the world's most famous express train, bound for New York.

In the next carriage resides his former sweetheart turned Hollywood starlet Lily Garland. Now Oscar has just 16 hours to entice the egotistical Lily back on to the stage, as the leading lady in his next show.

Oscar's financial ruin hangs in the balance and a jealous lover is on the loose. Offered funding by religious fanatic Letitia Peabody Primrose, Jaffee's dreams fall into a glorious, and by turns hilarious, balancing act of keeping everyone happy. Set against a backdrop of the great American Depression of the 1930s, what unfolds is a tongue-in-cheek fairy tale of the pitfalls of producing theatre when cash is tight and private money comes at an unavoidable cost.