Maltby and Shire: Closer than ever at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday 10th May 2014, matinée

Our joy at learning that there was going to be a Maltby and Shire show coming to the Jermyn Street theatre was slightly deflated on discovering that it would be a revue rather than a musical.  These are the authors of one of our favourite musicals ever, the ill-fated Take Flight, which enjoyed a brief run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007 and was our first taste of that venue too.  But any chance to sample these two again had to be worth taking.

Closer Than Ever was first produced in 1990, although the publicity tells us this is a revised production.  Either way it has stood the test of time pretty well, with a wide range of songs covering almost every conceivable aspect of human relationships.  We learnt whilst researching it that many of the songs were based on true stories that the writers had picked up from friends, and it certainly does bring some unusual insights and quirky humour to the proceedings.

None other than Richard Maltby Jr himself has directed this production, and along with musical director Nathan Martin, he has brought together an accomplished cast who make the most of every moment of comedy, drama, soaring choruses and quiet reflection.  Issy Van Randwyck, a veteran of all-female comedy trio ‘Fascinating Aida’ is absolutely in her element as ‘Miss Byrd’, the unassuming office worker with a saucy secret – belting out the refrain ‘Miss Byrd is singing’ while spinning on her office chair.  She also has a cheeky number with the bass player, and delivers the feisty ‘You want to be my friend?’ (to an unsuspecting ex-boyfriend) with great relish.  Sophie Louise Dann has great range and presence, as we know from having seen her in the fantastic Forbidden Broadway when it was last in London – a show in which she will return in June.  She delivers impeccably as the scientist admiring the ability of female animals to do without the male of the species in ‘The Bear, The Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole’.  She brings depth to the quieter songs too and gets to flex her comic muscles in the ‘Fandango’, a song in which a modern working couple try to persuade each other to ‘take the baby’.  Arvid Larsen plays the younger man of the quartet, and combines a melodious voice with a natural bent for comedy bringing many of the duets and group numbers to life with a highly expressive face.  His reactions to being on the receiving end of ‘So you want to be my friend’? are very amusing, and the subtlety of his expressions in the excellent ‘There’, about a husband who is mentally absent from a marriage, perfectly complements the sentiments of the song.  Graham Bickley has an impressive back-catalogue (put it this way – there are pictures of him with a mullet), and he is the lynchpin of the piece, playing the role of ‘straight man’ with calm assurance. He has a great time with ‘What Am I Doin’?’, reminiscing about the days when he would do anything for love, including going through his ex-lover’s trash.

There are many numbers to cherish in this show, and some which we could take or leave – songs like ‘One of the Good Guys’ and ‘Patterns’ seem a bit sentimental, compared with the freshness and wit of the lyrics in many of the others.  At their best, Maltby and Shire can combine lightness of touch with satisfying depth, and what really shines through is the storytelling.  Every song is a mini-story with characters and situation clearly defined and the feeling that the writers really had something to say pervades the show.  The frustration is that each story is very short, and whilst we did enjoy the show, a part of us also longed for another fully formed musical from this talented duo.

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