A Damsel in Distress continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 27 June.
Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It has to be said that A Damsel in Distress is a load of nonsense – but what gorgeous and joyous nonsense!
For this new stage musical, writers Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson have taken P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel and given it a new life.
Dust has been blown away and there is a fresh edge to a contrived plot of mistaken identities and unlikely romantic alliances. This freshness even stretches to theatrical in-jokes and an outrageously funny horticultural double entendre.
There are typical Wodehouse characters in the show (a pig-loving Earl, a silly-ass and a gorgon of an aunt), but the writing and performances present them in a sympathetic light. They are people as opposed to the usual gallery of grotesques, with the exception of the aunt, perhaps.
The show has retained many of the numbers written by the Gershwin brothers for the 1937 film version. While there are some classics, there are also lesser-known ones. Of these, several are of a dubious quality and would normally have been best left in mothballs, but, perversely, they sit happily in this production and serve as novelty numbers or revue routines. For example ‘I’m a Poached Egg’ is delivered by silly-ass Reggie as a touching love song that tries to explain his feelings for the below-stairs Alice.
The show, played in front of a spectacular castle setting (take a bow designer Christopher Oram) is full of goodies both comic and musical with superb talent on display throughout. Rob Ashford’s direction and choreography never allow the production to flag and he certainly gets the best out of his cast. Amongst the excellent dance routines there are two exciting tap numbers – ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ and ‘Fidgety Feet’.
A stellar cast has Richard Fleeshman as George Bevan as an American musical theatre composer and lyricist, while the object of his affection, Lady Maud, is played by Summer Strallen with the right degree of giddiness as she strives to be a modern girl. They seem to be a bit shortchanged regarding vocals, but they do get to duet with ‘Soon’. Fleeshman comes into his own with ‘A Foggy Day’ as does Strallen in ‘Evening Star’.
Among all the excellent principals there are two surprising performances. The lovely Isla Blair sheds her usual sweetness and turns herself into a monstrous harridan who has more feeling for her pack of borzoi dogs than for people.
It is a joy to see the Nicholas Farrell let his hair down and have a whale of a time as the Lord Marshmoreton. He captures the character’s eccentricity but imbues him with a gentle charm, especially in ‘Mine’, which he sings to his beloved rose bushes. He is partnered with Sally Ann Triplett as Billie, the leading lady from George’s latest show, and they gel well – a highlight being ‘Love Walked In‘. Triplett leads a sizzling version of ‘I Can’t Be Bothered Now’.
Richard Dempsey’s silly-ass Reggie is never allowed to go over the top and provides a lot of the comedy, along with Melle Stewart as Alice. More comedy comes from the droll Desmond Barrit who shows his experience by underplaying Keggs, the butler, forever quoting the bard.
A special mention has to go to Chloe Hart and David Roberts in the minor roles of cooks Dorcas and Pierre. The antics of this couple captured the hearts of the audience who gave them a great ovation, especially in ‘French Pastry Walk’. They provide a soufflé of silliness which sums up the rest of the show.
There is great support from members of the ensemble who all contribute to the success of this feast of fun and frolics.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview –Sally Ann Triplett doing what she loves in A Damsel in Distress at Chichester