Losing his marble: One Touch of Venus at Ye Olde Rose and Crown

Sunday 10th February 2013

Ever since going to Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub in Walthamstow to see Love and War, a well-crafted and performed revue featuring songs by Howard Goodall, we have hoped to return to see something else.  When we heard about One Touch of Venus, the intriguing idea of Kurt Weill leaving his long-term collaborator Bertholt Brecht to do a musical with humourist poet Ogden Nash seemed as good a reason as any to revisit this venue.

The story is loosely (very loosely) based on the Pygmalion myth, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved, only to find it coming to life through a miracle, courtesy of the goddess Venus.  Here we have art collector Whitelaw Savory buying a statue because it reminds him of a mysterious girl from his past, and a love triangle ensues when his barber Rodney Hatch happens to bring the statue to life by putting a ring on her finger.  Mayhem ensues….

It’s no surprise that some of the songs from this little-known musical have become standards in their own right, in particular Speak low and ‘I’m a stranger here myself’.  There are some beautiful musical interludes, with ‘speak low’, the lovers’ duet making a fitting centrepiece.  The title song, ‘One Touch of Venus’, a tribute to feminine charms that doesn’t bear too much post-feminist scrutiny, is amusing and pleasant, whilst we particularly enjoyed the impromptu barber shop quartet that comes together to sing ‘The trouble with women’, and in this case women can sleep easy because it turns out the trouble with women ‘is men’.  Having said that there are some less successful numbers such as ‘Catch Hatch’ and a bizarre song about Dr Crippen.

Whilst we enjoyed the music, SJ Perelman and Nash’s book has some insurmountable problems.  There is one simple concept at the heart of the piece, that a statue comes to life, so it is clearly a fantasy and fairly lightweight, but the golden rule that fantasy should always obey its own rules is often broken, making the action confusing and somewhat random and over-complicated.  The statue is Venus herself, and sometimes she has goddess-like powers, for example freezing the action when she likes and making people disappear, yet, at other times she seems powerless, and a victim of others.  The basic premise, that she wants an ordinary life after all that divinity could have some comic potential, but this is not realised either, leaving the story rather flat instead of magical.  Rodney Hatch starts out as the reluctant object of Venus’ charms, and spends the first half of the story being stalked by her.  What begins as an amusing reversal, ie, a goddess falling in love with an undeserving man, becomes an unsatisfactory ending, as he becomes the only character to benefit, despite making no effort to get what he wants.  It is probably worth noting that the 1948 film made some radical changes to the characters and plot which seem to address some of the issues, making us wonder why the producers decided to put on the original without any changes.

Given the limitations of the material, and its length, we feel that Aaron Clingham and Lydia Milman Schmidt did a fantastic job of bringing the production of life.  Sarah June Mills’ art gallery set was ambitious for such a small place, and well used.  We particularly liked the way one of the Mondrian paintings had little peep holes and hatches through which actors appeared at key moments.  The large cast were strong, with Kendra McMillan bringing just the right combination of eccentricity, haughtiness and innocence to the role of Venus.  David Jay Douglas was perfect as the unlikely object of her affection, and Benjamin Mahns-Mardy stood out as the surly Stanley with an impressive voice.  James Wolstenholme, whom we saw in the excellent Royal Academy of Music student production of ‘Follies’ as Buddy, didn’t disappoint as a rather vivacious incarnation of the world-weary Whitelaw Savory. 

We certainly admire All Star Productions for doing such a quality job – and although we would question how wise they were in their choice of material this time, we look forward to our next visit.  You’ve got to admire their ambition – in May they will be putting on the UK premier of the musical ‘Phantom’.  Not to be confused with the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, this is the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit work which predated it.

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