A column of London theatre reviews by Sheridan Morley.
DIVORCE ME, DARLING
Paul Kerryson, whose work at Leicester on neglected Sondheim has been one of the regular delights of this last musical decade, moves south with the first-ever revival of Divorce Me, Darling, what I guess Hollywood might have called The Boy Friend II. All the characters from the original are back in Nice, only this time to get divorced or bombed or bankrupted; the innocence of the twenties, that yearning for a room in Bloomsbury, has given way to a darker and more complex world of the thirties in which people are now frantically dancing away from something horrible rather than towards something magical.
The sheer, long-neglected brilliance of Sandy Wilson is that (like his only real rival this West End century, the Vivian Ellis of Mr. Cinders and Spread a Little Happiness) he exists and operates on the very borderlines of memory and mockery, slyly commenting on this prewar period, even while he is ostensibly celebrating it. In that sense his songs are far more subversive than they first appear, elegant little musical time bombs that explode just when you least expect them.
What remains so utterly, joyously dazzling about Divorce Me, Darling is not a patchy score but the vast range of its references; within a two-hour dance marathon we get allusions to the balcony scene in Private Lives, the "list" songs written by Cole Porter for Ethel Merman, dance routines originally created on battleship decks for Ann Miller, a Gene Kelly routine from On the Town, a plot out of 42nd Street about an understudy suddenly having to cover for a star, and far more subtle reminders of Jack Buchanan, Gertrude Lawrence, Bobby Howes and Binnie Hale.
Without ever falling back on anything so obvious or weary as direct parody or imitation, Wilson gathers up all this diverse musical material and rewrites it into a coherent (well, nearly) whole, which can today be enjoyed by anyone even without the faintest idea of or interest in any of these people; yet for those of us who do happen to know and love them or at least their memories, then Divorce Me, Darling also works as a critical history of the period and its long-lost brilliance.
Kerryson has gathered around him the greatest musical cast I have ever seen in nearly 40 years of Chichester; led by the ageless, timeless Liliane Montevecchi, who now looks and sounds like Dietrich on speed, the company also includes Rosemary Ford, Tim Flavin, Ruthie Henshall and Andrew Halliday as the would-be divorcees, the veteran Jack Tripp and Joan Savage as the loony aristocrats leading a troop of keep-fit tap dancers for reasons never explained, Marti Webb as the requisite American heiress and Linzi Hateley as the maid made for all occasions.
And that's just the start of it: The cast runs to another 15, and when they finally get into line behind Rosemary Ford for a tap-danced finale, we get a breath-taking reminder that since this show first opened and closed all too quickly, the British musical theatre has bred a generation of show singers and dancers who could have taken on Hollywood at its Busby Berkeley best. True, if David Needham's choreography were any more camp, they'd have to dance the whole thing in tents, but then again who now "takes the lunchtime plane from Croydon" or dares to complain, without double entendre, that "I'm fagged from the Blue Train"?
Just as Noel Coward, when he turned to painting, made all his landscapes look like the backdrops of his theatre sets, so Wilson's world of the prewar Riviera is entirely reflected through the shows and films written about it while he was growing up; but as he approaches his mid-seventies, this rich and rare revival brings the composer back center stage for the first time in decades, and the paradox is that while the original Boy Friend, the show that made his name, gets harder to revive every year, this rare flop now comes up looking fresh and fit and fantastic.
Intriguingly, the family-crisis drama is back: At the Old Vic, in the most impressive classic-revival season for years, can also be found some new work, and Samuel Adamson's Grace Note is, in my experience, the first play ever to tackle the agony of Alzheimer's in any real detail. The Grace of the title (Geraldine McEwan in wondrous eccentricity and heartbreaking courage) is an Australian opera freak obsessed with the memory of Joan Sutherland nights in Sydney; now, 30 years later, she is in unhappy London exile, surrounded by relatives who have their own lives to lead and with one or two exceptions are only really interested in what, if anything, the old lady might be inclined to leave them.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a very intimate play thrust onto a main stage where there are indeed acoustic problems; but the drama, like its title character, has considerable reserves of unexpected strength, and a powerful supporting cast (Holly Aird, Neil Stuke, Jonathan Cullen) gives it all they've got. Socially and sexually this is an unfashionable piece of writing, and I can't avoid the belief that had Adamson been Irish rather than Australian, he and his characters would have had much more gentle critical appraisal; for some reason London still has real difficulty understanding or accepting new plays from Down Under, and the loss is always ours. -- By Sheridan Morley