Saturday 27th October 2012, evening
Having queued extra early to get good seats for Victor/Victoria at the Southwark Playhouse, we were rather dismayed to find that the seating layout was traverse. No point trying to find the best seat – the chances were we would end up frustrated wherever we sat. Although we tried to stay positive, our previous experience of traverse staging was not a happy one, and we found it hard to shake off our sense of deja vu. We have already gone on about this at length in our review of Road Show, but since we had to relive the whole experience again, we see no reason not to repeat our reasons for believing that this must be the worst kind of staging ever, a travesty in fact. Firstly, it makes the main playing area tiny. Whilst it allows for more action at either side, the strip in the middle, where your face tends to be pointed, allows very little room for manoeuvre. Apart from having to look at the rest of the audience, we just got rather weary of having to watch the actors with our head at an angle, and even then missing much of the action if we made the wrong decision about where to look. Add to that the fact that most of the dance numbers were done effectively side-on (including a routine in which the dancers wore masks on the back of their heads), and we found ourselves struggling to like this production.
The music and lyrics were written by Leslie Bricusse and Henry Mancini for the Blake Edwards film. Frank Wildhorn provided additional material for the Broadway Stage version, including one of our favourite songs, ‘Living in the Shadows’. Although ‘Le Jazz Hot’ is meant to be the signature number, we preferred the more mellow ‘Paris By Night’. The story is paper thin, and the sexual politics have not aged well (darling!) Elements of the story seem to suggest that would-be female impersonator Toddy and his friend Victoria should be in some way similar, but they are chalk and cheese. With no real sense of theatre or conflict the drama did not satisfy and none of the characters seemed particularly sympathetic. This might have been rescued with some wit, physical comedy or pace, but whilst the witty dialogue certainly shone in places, the action was not tight enough to bring out any sense of farce. For a play that is all about confusion, illusion, and misdirection, surely it is essential that the director has control over the action and the audience knows where to look. OK, that’s enough about the traverse staging.
Overall, we were impressed with the cast, as we have come to expect at the Southwark Playhouse. Anna Francolini as Victor/Victoria did an excellent job of delivering a strong female character, with wit and charm, and a lovely voice to go with it. We would love to see more of her, perhaps with some better material to work with. Richard Dempsey seems rather too youthful looking to need to pay men for sex (not that we are purporting to be experts on such matters), but as the down-on-his luck ‘hot’ Toddy, he is charming and funny, without dominating the action. Bizarrely, having done a stint with our least favourite (and politically incorrect) acting company Propeller and received some acclaim for playing female Shakespearean roles, his turn as ‘Victoria’ at the end seemed strangely unconvincing. Whether it was because he was about a foot taller than Francolini we don’t know, but he seemed to have the wrong balance of masculinity and campness, resulting in Chez Lui going from having the “best” female impersonator in Paris to possibly the worst. As King Marchand, Matthew Cutts had the perfect physicality for the conflicted dodgy businessman who is hoping that the man he is in love with turns out to be a ‘dame’. He also had a lovely voice which was sadly underused, although very effective in the duet ‘almost a love song’.
We do have one final beef with this production. Only a small one, but sometimes it’s the details which grate the most. Having thought we had already witnessed the worst wig in history in the otherwise enjoyable Tale of Two Cities, we find ourselves needing to revise that judgement. What on earth was going on with Anna Francolini’s wig. Yes, we understood that when she came on with slightly unconvincing long hair, this would soon be removed to revealing a natty masculine haircut. Instead of which she returned as a man having apparently been dragged through a combine harvester backwards. Never mind the shame of homosexuality, Marchand would surely have been more concerned at being seen walking out with another man who was apparently sporting the worst haircut in Paris. We can only say that we are filled with admiration from Anna Francolini’s ability to rise above her hairpiece, and wish her better trichological luck next time.