Thoroughly Modern Millie continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until 28 January before touring until 24 June.
Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩
It’s ironic really that at the core of Thoroughly Modern Millie is a character who lives for being a ‘modern’ and keeping up with current trends, and yet the show is so dated that it almost begs the question: why revive it in the first place?
It’s not that this touring production is an absolute disaster, but every creative aspect of the piece – from the staging and set design to the old-fashioned, cringeworthy themes and libretto – appears throughly exposed.
I have no problem with Millie’s predictable girl-meets-boy storyline – there are even a few amusing twists and turns along the way – but with a book as light and fluffy as this one (penned by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan), production values elsewhere have to be topnotch – and they’re not.
The set, a sort of fold-out Chrysler building reminiscent of a children’s cardboard theatre, hardly stretches across the Milton Keynes stage and does little to create the colour, energy and buzz of New York City.
And while members of the ensemble do their best to use the space as directed and choreographed, there aren’t enough of them to create any knock-your-socks-off production numbers. Even the opening number, when Millie from Salina, Kansas swaps her small-town look for modern bob and flapper dress, falls a little flat.
Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: the storyline in which the dastardly Mrs Meers (complete with dodgy Chinese accent) turns out to not just be the landlady of the hotel where Millie and her actress chums stay, but the leader of a white slavery ring.
Critics of Millie are very quick to whinge on about this part of the show, and to some extent they are right: it is difficult to feel comfortable during these scenes which appear, at least on the surface, to enforce racial stereotypes and encourage the audience to laugh at Mrs Meers’ immigrant sidekicks struggling to master English.
What might make some difference (and I believe it’s what the writers intended) would be to portray the landlady as a failed actress-turned-criminal so ignorant she thinks she is successfully passing herself off as Chinese, not realising what a stereotype she is creating.
When we first meet Michelle Collins’ Mrs Meers she talks in an offensive Chinese accents to her guests, but in American dialect to her accomplices on the phone – emphasising it is all an act.
The problem is, after that, Collins’ accent is all over the place, so the distinction that could have aided her portrayal goes out the window. In fact, Collins looks completely at sea and creates a performance that might work in panto, but not in this context.
Thank goodness there is some light relief supplied by the musical’s love stories, including some deliberately hammy acting. The latter is supplied by two of the show’s best voices: Miss Dorothy (Katherine Glover) and Trevor Graydon (Graham MacDuff) when they first catch sight of each other, and later MacDuff is great fun when playing drunk after being stood up by his lady love.
Youthful Sam Barrett, as Jimmy Smith, also impresses, particularly when realising he is smitten with Millie in ‘What Do I Need With Love?’.
However, the nicest surprise is Strictly’s Joanne Clifton’s charming performance in the central role. Sure, she may not yet have the confidence of someone who has spent years training in the genre and she needs to take care with her singing voice, but the charismatic actress has all the signs of being a decent triple threat.
To stay so engaged and hold a show together in such a central role when so many other creative elements are simply average is quite an achievement.
As choreographer, Racky Plews demonstrates a few flourishes in the ensemble numbers (although much more could have been made of talented Jenny Fitzpatrick’s numbers as Muzzy Van Hossmere), but as director her work is surprisingly jumbled and pedestrian.
I have a feeling that the only way to make Millie watchable again in the kind of divisive world we now live in is to do something radical with the content – and that definitely isn’t happening here.