A Damsel in Distress – Chichester Festival Theatre

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Following a cracking start to this year’s Chichester season with the watery Way Upstream and a previously unblemished record in recent times for superb musical revivals it is disappointing to report a definite lurch on the conveyor of the Chichester success machine. It is easy to see why somebody thought this would be a sure fire hit, particularly in this quintessentially British theatre in glorious Chichester. What could go wrong with a heady mix of P.G. Wodehouse writing and Gershwin music and lyrics.

Wrong it has most definitely gone however in Rob Ashford’s lack lustre and uninspiring production. Even David Chase’s musical and dance arrangements of the infinitely enjoyable Gershwin songs lack pace and spark with each one temporarily immobilising the entire piece rather than pushing it along with any kind of pizazz or clout. Indeed it is noticeable that the finale consists of the entire (and not insignificant)chorus all stood in a line utterly motionless, there are no big tap routines or set ‘wow’ moments here. This is a surprise considering Ashford’s fine history of glitzy glamour that has often taken your breath away. One wonders if his heart was in this one and may well have been overheard singing along to ‘I Can’t Be Bothered Now’ a little too closely.

It’s a typically flimsy plot as might be expected with the writing team that are behind it. Based on a novel from 1919 that was adapted for a silent movie version a year later and then muscalised with the addition of the Gershwin songs for the 1937 Fred Astaire film there are hopes of something akin to previous successes like Me and My Girl or Crazy for You. Both of these enjoyed huge success and were a similar cocktail of fluff and nonsense, but had a huge heart and a big splash of comedy, both of which are lacking from this laboured affair.

Maude is the typically repressed young socialite that is desperate to escape the clutches of her fearsome Aunt, Lady Caroline. She finds escape through the dashing American theatre director George Bevan who sets upon a quest to free her from Lady Caroline’s marriage plans for her to an aristocratic toff. A few Upstairs, Downstairs moments with servants and some chorus girls thrown in for good measure pad out the stage but add little to the already thin plotline.

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Summer Strallen provides her well drilled and often given clean cut ingénue routine as Maude. Her familiar long legs are given the odd outing (as is surely part of her standard contract) and Strallen hits every note with a polished assuredness that cannot be faulted. It all seems so ordinary though. Her beau George Bevan is played by Richard Fleeshman who again does everything that he needs to do but lacks charisma and seems awfully young to be directing and transferring shows from Broadway to London.

Personality is more evident in the older generation that do their best to cook up a storm with the material. Desmond Barrit is a suitably dry witted Keggs the Butler whilst Isla Blair has fun with the delightfully starched Lady Caroline. There is good comic work too from Richard Dempsey as Reggie and David Roberts as Pierre, the cook. The biggest saviour of the evening is Nicholas Farrell as down beaten Lord Marshmoreton. Farrell exhibits the kind of comedy that the rest of the show cries out for and is a delight from beginning to end. As he re-emerges from the shadows of his domineering sister to seduce Sally Ann Triplett’s sassy Billie there are some lovely moments that are unfortunately all too few in this production though.

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