Saturday 16th February 2013, matinée
There were no problems deciding whether to go and see ‘Dear World’ at the Charing Cross Theatre. As their publicity puts it – four legends unite to create theatrical history, and for once it’s not an exaggeration. A long overdue UK premier of a work with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman starring Betty Buckley and Paul Nicholas, directed by Gillian Lynne, who helped to make ‘Phantom of the Opera’ such a memorable production with her choreography. And the availability of £15 tickets was a welcome bonus. Having booked in August, we were pretty disappointed to arrive on the 9th February to find the matinée performance cancelled, due to ‘electrical problems’. A glance at www.broadwayworld.com told us that the cancellation was due to Paul Nicholas being ill, so we are not sure which explanation to believe, unless he is in fact a robot. And so, a week later, we were very glad to take up our seats without incident.
‘Dear World’ is based on the play by Jean Giraudoux ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’, and billed as a musical fable. It is not particularly easy to synopsise, but we will try. All in the space of one afternoon, an eccentric old lady who owns a pavement cafe in Paris defeats some ruthless businessmen who want to turn Paris into an oilfield, reminisces about her lost love and does some match-making, all with the help of a rather mystical ‘Sewer man’ and her two friends, both with their own distinct brands of madness. This is definitely a story in which the journey is more important than the destination.
Jerry Herman was known to have wanted a more ‘intimate’ setting for ‘Dear World’ after the Broadway production closed, and we are sure he would be thrilled with this one. Gillian Lynne both directs and choreographs, and she has lavished care and attention to bring out the warmth, humour and eccentricity of the piece, without diluting the message for modern audiences, with the individual fighting against the march of greedy capitalism. The choreography is well judged, combining traditional and romantic sequences with some wonderful comic moments, particularly with the three ‘presidents’ and the sewer man. The action flows along beautifully, savouring this strange world as it goes.
Lynne has found a very special cast for this production. We never thought we would get to see Betty Buckley on the London stage, and certainly not under the arches of the Charing Cross Theatre. It’s easy to see why she is so widely admired – as countess Aurelia, her star quality shines through, with numbers such as ‘I don’t want to know’ and ‘And I was beautiful’. She is ably supported by Rebecca Lock (Gabriella) and Annabel Leventon (Constance), her two friends, who seem to compete in ever more fanciful ideas. Gabriella has an imaginary dog, whom she only takes out occasionally, making it very difficult to tell the ‘real’ imaginary dog from the ‘imaginary’ imaginary dog, and Constance is a clairvoyant whose ‘voices’ move around her house, taking up residence in her pillow, hot water bottle, etc. Their attempts to have logical discussions about this are hilarious. It was a special treat to see Paul Nicholas, another West End legend. As the sewer man, he exuded exactly the right amount of effortless charm and absolute authority whilst dispensing his own brand of completely absurd wisdom, and his rendition of ‘Have a little pity on the rich’ was a joy to watch. WIth Peter Land, Robert Meadmore and Craig Nicholls (a late addition) on excellent form as the evil capitalists, and Stuart Matthew Price and Kate Treharne sweetly tuneful as the young lovers, this was a cast to enjoy.
Having said all that, we wouldn’t call this classic Herman. Jean Giraudoux is said to have coined the phrase ‘only the mediocre are always at their best’, and this seems an apt back-handed compliment in Herman’s case – after all, he is certainly not a mediocre talent. There are some recognisable elements to enjoy, particularly the warmth, the strong characters, the hummable tunes and the wider feel-good message. But whilst this is an eminently enjoyable ramble through a surreal world, there is no real sense of jeopardy, and despite her powerful presence in the story, the Countess Aurelia is in part a spectator, and she only gives a brief glimpse of her inner world before shutting it away again. Nevertheless, this is a rare opportunity to see a lesser-known work given the production it deserves.