The Spitfire Grill continues at the Union Theatre, London until 15 August.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
The seemingly relentless trend of adapting movies into stage musicals – viz Bend It Like Beckham, Billy Elliot, The Bodyguard and Back to the Future (if it ever happens), and that’s just a selection of the Bs! – is not the sole preserve of glitzy West End theatres. Currently running at the pocket-sized Union in Southwark is an adaptation of the somewhat obscure 1996 feature film The Spitfire Grill. But given that there’s a good chance you might not have seen the movie, and therefore have nothing to compare it with, you’ll appreciate this little gem of a show on its own merits.
The story centres on Percy, freshly released from a five-year spell in prison, as she attempts to make a new life for herself in the sleepy town of Gilead: a Garrison-Keillor-esque Lake Wobegon transplanted to the forests of Maine. Here, guided by her parole officer Joe – the town’s sheriff – she takes a job in the titular cafe, under the watchful eye of owner Hannah Ferguson. At first, the townsfolk are suspicious of Percy but they soon warm to her, and she starts to have a positive effect on everyone’s life. There are just some secrets, though, that are impossible to keep…
Sound familiar? Yes, The Spitfire Grill is part of a homely storytelling tradition in the United States that encompasses the likes of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, The Bridges of Madison County, Steel Magnolias and Beaches. It’s a gentle, cosy story – with strong female characters – that plucks at the heart strings and challenges your preconceptions. In other words, a likely candidate to work well in musical from.
And work it does, thanks in part to a charming score and book by composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley, a partnership that ended all too suddenly with the unexpected death of Alley in 2001. However, it’s the calibre of the performances at this production at the Union – the show’s UK professional premiere – that really demonstrates the quality of the material.
Right from the off, Australian Belinda Wollaston delivers a commanding portrayal of Percy as a victim of circumstance but one that is never prepared to back down. Her acting – and southern accent – is flawless, and her lovely singing voice resonates around the Union, despite no amplification. Hers is a raw, gutsy performance that draws you into Percy’s story and keeps you intrigued until the point in Act II when she finally reveals the reason for her prison sentence – a genuinely harrowing moment, expertly played.
Beside her, and just as compelling, is Hilary Harwood’s gruff cafe owner Hannah. Harwood is a tremendous actress, and I loved every scene she was in. She matches Wollaston in the vocal stakes too, albeit with a raspiness befitting a woman that’s struggled to keep her business, and life, on the rails.
Supporting roles are provided by the very capable team of Chris Kiely as Sheriff Joe, Hans Rye and Natalie Law as Hannah’s nephew Caleb and his wife Shelby, and the ever-reliable Katie Brennan as the town gossip Effy. Andrew Borthwick also makes an appearance – his professional debut – as a mysterious, mute, forest-dwelling hobo (whose eventual unveiling probably won’t come as that much of a surprise).
Director Alastair Knights keeps things spare, with only a few props and no scenery other than some tables and chairs – a welcome austerity that keeps the action moving without distraction. The music is perfectly pitched for the drama, and arranged for piano and accordion (a nice touch) by musical director Simon Holt. (There is a guitar part too, but on the night I was in the guitarist was indisposed.) Parts of the score remind me of Jason Robert Brown – indeed, the tone and texture of the piece is similar to his Bridges of Madison County – and as challenging as they might be for the performers, the musical numbers come across as natural and effortless. They’re perhaps a little undemanding on the audience, but they certainly don’t overwhelm or interrupt the story.
It’s a pity that we’ll never get to see any more from the creative duo of Valcq and Alley, as The Spitfire Grill – only their second collaboration – suggests they could have gone on to make an important contribution to musical theatre. So all credit to the Union for selecting this little-known gem and allowing Knights and his team to give it a well-deserved polish.