Music by Jacques Offenbach and His contemporaries
Loosely based on Trelawney of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero
Freely adapted with lyrics by Phil Willmott.
The Union Theatre, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR to 9 March 2019.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & Sun 2.30pm.
Runs 2 Hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876
Review: William Russell 14 February.
Can, can? No – Can’t.
Directed by Phil Setren this terrible show, while it has been handsomely staged and belts along briskly with a cast doing its very best in the circumstances, bids fair to be one of those shows so awful it is unforgettable. Collectors of bad musicals should hasten to the Union as this is one not to miss.
The plot is apparently inspired by Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells, although if that is what Phil Willmott, its begetter, wanted to stage why didn’t he rescue Trelawney, the Julian Slade musical, from oblivion instead– although maybe the rights are not available. On the basis that Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld does not seem to work for modern audiences, a dubious thesis to say the least, and Cole Porter’s Can –Can doesn’t work either, for which there is some justification, he has come up with this farrago about how the Can Can came to be using tunes by Offenbach (1819-1880) and his contemporaries Kern (1885-1945), Friml (1879-1972), Herbert (1859-1924), Monckton (1861 – 1924) and Lehar (1870-1948).
That means there are some very pretty melodies to listen to, but since most of the cast cannot sing – with the exception of Kathy Peacock, who plays the heroine and Can-Can star, Jane Avril – this is not much of a consolation and several of them get, to put it politely, murdered in performance. As Avril is forced to duet with her lover Christian Bontoux Ms Peacock has her work out because, while his leaps are impressive, Damjan Mrackovitch cannot sing. What the entire cast can do rather well is dance, although the choreography by Adam Haigh is demented to say the least and the closing Can-Can, while undeniably energetic, must be the first Can-Can when the men are sexier than the women.
The plot is simple. Rich young banker Christian Bontoux ( Mrackovich), who dreams of going on the stage, falls for Jane Avril and they go to live with his father, a disciplinarian and snob (Phil Willmott). The ménage also includes his downtrodden younger brother and his wife, who also dreams of going on the stage. Avril has left behind her theatre companions, who include La Gouloue, the originator of the Can-Can, its composer Offenbach, who conducts the theatre orchestra, Toulouse Lautrec who runs around sketching people, as well as Pujol whose speciality is to fart to music.
Naturally things do not work out for the lovers, Papa Bontoux ensures the theatre is shut down and the Orpheus Theatre company forced to tour – instead of being, as La Gouloue says she once was, a tour de force. The young couple split up, Jane becoming wardrobe mistress as she has lost the urge to perform, and Christian goes to London to seek a theatrical career there.
In the end, of course, they are reunited, Papa Bontoux’s awful secret is revealed, the company returns to Paris, Offenbach composes the Can-Can, everyone hurtles round the stage waving limbs and displaying their underwear, and that is that. Just why La Gouloue is played by a man is one of those things one expects these days, but to be fair to PK Taylor he makes the best of a bad job. Willmott, however, should stick to directing as his Papa Bontoux, the least threatening domestic tyrant ever, vanishes into the scenery instead of dominating events.
Can-Can could be the worst show of the year – and it is only February. It could even be the worst show of many a year. Just why it should be included in what is called the Essential Classics Season is another mystery, although not really worth solving. One’s heart bleeds for the cast, hopes that none of the assorted apparently contemporary composers whirl too furiously in their graves at what is done with their melodies, and that Offenbach does not rise from the tomb to take revenge.
Jane: Kathy Peacock.
Offenbach: Sam Woods.
Master of Ceremonies: Richard Harfst.
La Gouloue: PK Taylor.
Pujol: Mark Carfield.
Jacques: James Alexander Chew.
Yvette: Emily Barnett Salter.
Colette: Kasey Claybourn.
Amy: Sarah Kacey.
Alice: Grace Manley.
Madame Olga: Corinna Marlowe.
Jeanne: Lauren Wood.
Billy: Callum Mills.
Toulouse: Jordan Nesbitt.
Fred: Richard Harfst.
Monsieur Bontoux: Phill Willmott.
Christian Bontoux: Damjan Mrackovich.
Cecil Bontoux: Connor Philipson.
Margot Bontoux: Grace Manley.
The Countess: Corinna Marlowe.
Charles: Richard Harst.
Fifi: Lauren Wood.
Francesca: Sarah Kacey.
Director: Phil Setren.
Choreographer: Adam Haigh.
Musical Arrangements & Sound Design: Richard Baker.
Set Design: Justin Williams & Jonny Rust.
Lighting Design: Matthew Swithinbank.
Costume Design: Penn O’Cara.
Production Photography: Scott Rylander.