Saturday 22nd February 2014, matinée (preview)
We had no trouble deciding to book for the latest production at the Southwark Playhouse, ‘The A-Z of Mrs P’, a new musical with book by Diane Samuels and Music and Lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, about Phyllis Pearsall, the driving force behind the ‘A-Z’ maps of London. The subject seemed intriguing, and with Frances Ruffelle and Stuart Matthew Price in the cast and one of our favourite musical theatre venues hosting, we were really looking forward to an enjoyable afternoon.
We should probably start by making a confession. We don’t like traverse staging – here are a couple of reviews that explain why (Victor/Victoria at the Southwark and Road Show at the Menier). We came early to queue for good seats, and there is nothing more depressing than coming into the theatre and realising that even with the ‘best seats in the house’ the view is probably going to be terrible. This is because the audience are seated in rows facing each other with the playing area a narrow strip in the middle. Add to this the sight of disappointed faces across the stage of people whose view is going to be worse than ours, as they were stuck at the end of the rows, and would clearly miss most of the action. It’s not a good start to the afternoon. If only we’d realised then that this was going to be the least of the production’s problems.
The plot is centered around Phyllis Pearsall, daughter of map publisher Alexander Gross, and a successful artist in her own right, who is persuaded to take on the mammoth task of creating an all-in-one pocket guide to the streets of London, a guide which was to become the popular and well-known ‘A-Z’ brand. Bizarrely, the story is not as interesting as it might be – although her life was quite eventful and full of eccentric characters, the focus of the story is too wide and the chronology too muddled to give it any narrative drive or real sense of drama and depth. Interestingly, some of the key facts of the story are disputed, revealing a whole new drama which remains untold in this version. Here we seem to have an unquestioning re-enactment of Pearsall’s own autobiography, in which some have suggested that she gives herself more credit than she deserves. We won’t go into that here, but her much younger half brother, Alex Gross, has a few things to say about it which can be found on his blog, including some interesting email correspondence with the producers. Of course, there is always artistic licence for playwrights, who may not want the facts to get in the way of a good story. But in this case, the story is not interesting enough to justify the fabrication (if that is what it is).
Clear staging and strong direction might have helped to make more of the story, but in this case it seems to have added to the confusion. We were genuinely shocked to discover that director Sam Buntrock has a string of credits behind him, including ‘Take Flight’ at the Menier, an underappreciated production of one of our favourite musicals which was full of originality and simplicity in its staging. In this case, there is a lot of inconsistency, for example real doors (which must have blocked sight lines), but mimed knocking. Too many of the scenes were overworked with superfluous props and overuse of the chorus, for example, the bus and cab journeys. The whole space felt cluttered and the action just didn’t flow. We were constantly trying to work out what was going on and trying to filter out annoying distractions. A major flaw of the traverse style is that most of the time we cannot see the performers’ faces full on, getting either a side or back view, which creates a distancing effect, and makes it difficult to empathise and get involved in the drama. And on top of all that the limited and bizarrely shaped space made choreography virtually impossible.
Isy Sutie plays Mrs P – she is a good comedienne but in this production there is little opportunity for humour, and she simply does not have the vocal power and range to carry off the songs. We wonder why this wasn’t made a priority in the casting (surely the writers would have wanted their songs given the best possible airing?), but sadly it seems to be common practice in musicals to downplay the need for strong singers, and in this case, it does let down the production. Michael Matus is the highlight of the show, playing Alexander Gross, Phyllis’s tyrannical but charming father. A dominant figure in the drama, even when communicating largely through the medium of telegrams, he has a fantastic voice and a charismatic stage presence. When he was off stage we found ourselves waiting for his next appearance. Judging by recent appearances, Frances Ruffelle seems to have it written into her contract that wearing stockings and slinky slips is obligatory, and to be fair, she carries off the role of Phyllis’s unstable yet loving mother with ease, but the character is paper-thin and her talents are wasted here. Stuart Matthew Price’s lovely voice is also given only a brief airing, although he is sweetly engaging playing the brother as both child and adult.
We can only conclude by saying that this is a very hard review to write. We are painfully conscious that writing about what is wrong with a play or musical is easier than getting it right, but sometimes, the errors seem so obvious that it is hard to believe nobody noticed. It seems to us that many of these problems seem to have come about because the experience of the audience was not given enough consideration. This is a preview, but sadly these are fundamental flaws which are unlikely to be ‘ironed out’ in time for opening night. But of course, there is no ‘A-Z’ for success in musical theatre.