It was with high expectation that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend, the Wizard of Warwick, took our seats in the Royal theatre for the Saturday matinee of Mame. It has come from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, which is rapidly garnering a reputation for top quality work, and critics and friends alike have heaped high praise on it. And it would be a welcome return to the Royal for Tracie Bennett, who started the fantastic journey of End of the Rainbow here back in 2010, one of the Made in Northampton productions that became a great success, with a West End and Broadway transfer.
It’s been fifty years since Mame coaxed the blues right out of the horn on the West End stage, so a revival was more than due. With curious but useful timing, those nice people at Lost Musicals produced a staged reading of the original source play, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, last year, and a thoroughly enjoyable play it is too. In fact – I’m going to be bold here – I think it’s probably better as a play than as a musical, with no insult intended to the late great Jerry Herman, or the creative team from the Hope Mill. I was fascinated to realise that the musical is 100% faithful to the play. I’m sure that even the same lines are spoken in both the play and the musical; it’s like Jerry Herman took the play, wrote some songs, and simply dropped them into place whilst keeping most of the original as the framework. As a result, most of the songs commit what I think is the cardinal sin of musicals, they don’t move the story along. It’s plot development – song – plot development – song in a very start-stop manner so that the plot doesn’t really grow organically.
And that plot is very much a game of two halves. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the rest of this paragraph. On Side One, young Patrick Dennis is brought to New York to live with his only relative, his Auntie Mame, who lives a swell, party existence and knows how to have a good time. She introduces him to her slightly outré lifestyle, and he reacts rather well to it. But the Wall Street Crash decimates Mame’s bank balance and it’s whilst she’s out attempting to earn a meagre living (never having had to work, she’s useless at it) that she meets Southern Gentleman and Plantation Owner, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Beau is smitten with Mame, and she’s smitten with his income. They wed and go on an extended honeymoon, during which time Patrick starts to grow up, and Beau comes to a sticky end by falling off a mountain. Side Two sees an older Patrick fall in love with the ultra-twee Gloria Upson, who’s blessed by an enormously bigoted family and Mame realises they’re all quite unsuitable for Patrick, although he can’t see it. However, after a dreadful dinner party where home truths are revealed, and a “chance” (it was no chance) meeting with Mame’s new assistant, Pegeen Ryan, Patrick comes back into the bosom of his family and he and Pegeen live happily ever after.
Despite the fact that the music holds back the plot rather than pushes it forward, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable show, with one famous showstopper number (the eponymous Mame) and a few other good songs; but I was surprised at how Jerry Hermanesque the whole show is. The stand-alone song Mame is the younger sister of the stand-alone, two years later, song Hello Dolly, in that it’s a full-on peaen to the wonderfulness of its title character. The well-known We Need a Little Christmas is a tweak away from Horace Vandergelder’s It Takes A Woman from Hello Dolly; Bosom Buddies is clearly the first version of I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles. Plot structure too; the story climax of Mame is the disastrous get-together with Patrick’s intended’s ghastly family. The climax of La Cage aux Folles comes with Georges’ and Albin’s son’s fiancé’s equally ghastly family having to be rushed out of the club in disguise; very similar plot devices involving ghastly prospective in-laws in disastrous social occasions. And I sense this is the tip of the iceberg where it comes to similarities between Mame and Herman’s other works.
Nick Winston’s carefree and joyous production does the near-impossible by cramming athletic and dynamic choreography into the teensiest of acting spaces. Frankly, it’s a miracle that no one collides with each other because (it seemed to me) there was no quarter given as to the choreographic content and the skill of the dancers in the cast, whilst the Royal offers little in the way of extensive acting areas. To be fair, Philip Whitcomb’s set includes two doorways to the left and right of the stage that intrude considerably into the main area and make the centre stage dancing seem even more compact. I’ve never felt such a feeling of claustrophobia with the Royal stage as I did whilst watching that large cast work their way through the show’s big ensemble numbers. But they did it; and they did it magnificently.
In addition to the choreography, the show looks and sounds as decadent and sybaritic as you would expect, with glamorous, showbiz cocktail parties, and a wealthy fox-hunt gathering (it’s ok, Mame saves the fox from being killed, phew). Alex Parker’s musicians are semi-hidden at the bottom of the big sweeping staircase at the back of the stage, as though Mame has a permanent house-band on hand (and why wouldn’t she?) The costumes are all superb – a great mix of classical refinement and showbiz indulgence – and there’s an exhilarating lighting design by Tim Mitchell.
Tracie Bennett is every bit as fantastic as you might expect. Although she’s a petite lady, she doth bestride that stage like a Colossus, as Steven Berkoff once almost wrote. She slips from comedy routine to dramatic Torch Song with effortless ease and fully deserved the instant standing ovation that erupted on her curtain call. Just as she was Judy Garland ten years ago, she is now Mame Dennis. She inhabits those larger than life characters so minutely and so intimately that she takes your breath away.
Harriet Thorpe gives an enormously entertaining performance as Mame’s acting friend Vera, a cross between a Grande Dame of Thespis and a tipsy old sot. There’s excellent support from Lewis Rae as Lindsay, Mame’s legal adviser, and Hugh Osborne as Babcock, the grumpy manager of her late brother’s estate. Jessie May makes a great transformation as Agnes Gooch, portraying her as the dowdy drudge to which she naturally defaults and as the swinging sexpot that Mame and Vera create out of her – a very good comedy performance. Darren Day took the part of Beau, and looked and sounded every inch the Southern Gentleman, although he did seem to falter at times; having been brought quite recently into the cast I wondered if he was a trifle under-rehearsed.
Talking of swapping roles, hats off to Mark Faith, who gave nifty performances as Mr Upson and Uncle Jeff without making them into caricatures, as he had just one between this week’s run and last week playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella in Sheffield. There’s a busy guy! The rest of the cast also all give great support and I was very impressed with the dancing of the ensemble performers, especially Jabari Braham who stood out as exceptional. And of course, there’s a tremendous performance by young Lochlan White, who played Young Patrick in our matinee. Great work – and a great acting future for him I’m sure.
A curiously old-fashioned show; compared with Guys and Dolls, say, currently on in Sheffield, Mame feels like almost a museum piece, even though it’s more than ten years younger. However, the show is given a great treatment by Nick Winston and his cast and provides terrific all round entertainment. Mame returns for one more week at the Salisbury Playhouse starting 21st January. Recommended!
Production photos by Pamela Raith
In a nutshell: Fun, flamboyant but strangely old-fashioned, this old musical gets a ravishing revival and Tracie Bennett is outstanding.