Strike Up The Band ☆☆☆
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
It has to be one of the more unusual topics for a musical: a quintessential American business magnate (making cheese – for comedy value!) manipulates the US Government into war with tiny neutral Switzerland in order to protect his profits. As the programme notes suggest this rarely performed satire was ahead of its time with themes including international trade tariff disputes and gunboat diplomacy. It was written in 1927 a mere two years before the Wall Street Crash and there are biting allusions to kick backs, bribes, income tax fraud and a host of other dodgy financial instruments (Credit Default Swaps weren’t mentioned but would fit perfectly!). Like harbingers of doom they are prescient of the coming financial Armageddon.
The show contains the music and lyrics of the genius brothers George and Ira Gershwin (Porgy & Bess) and the book is by George S. Kaufman (Merrily We Roll Along/You Can’t Take It With You). Songs include ‘The Man I Love’ (covered by such artists as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Kate Bush) and I’ve Got A Crush On You (Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand) – their enduring popularity a testament to the quality of the song writing. This particular production, ably directed by Mark Giesser, excels in these set piece duets with Adam Scott Pringle and Charlotte Christensen as Timothy and Anne singing ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ or the showstopper moment ‘The Man I Love’ sung with emotional intensity by Beth Burrowes as Joan and Paul Biggin as Jim.
The comedy of George Spelvin’s role a government spy (played by David Francis) fell a little flat perhaps needing a little bit of Marx Brothers type mania to make it work. Perhaps the comedy style just doesn’t really translate to the modern taste unless you are Lee Evans.
The stand out performance has to be Mrs Draper played by Pippa Winslow. She brings a welcome level of camp that is off the scale and lifts the whole production. Beautifully cast, her blonde demi wave heralds her entrance, and her stage presence holds your interest and provided much of the laugh out loud humour as she schemes and manipulates her way round an international incident – always looking for her own advantage whilst bemoaning eternal issues such as the search for a rich husband and ageing.
A couple of other romantic subplots provide light relief and human interest and the ensemble numbers are fun, with the choreography by Orley Quick making the most of the space and giving a nod to the styles of the time including a cracking tap dance by Sammy Graham . It’s a big show for costumes and Giulia Scrimieri works hard to achieve a strong look for the various scenes whether it be army fatigues during wartime or the bright blue factory overalls for when they are singing the praises of their product with names such as “The Abe Lincoln – Honest American Cheese”.
The demands of lighting a big musical in a small venue can sometimes be difficult and it’s a challenge that Will Leighton struggles to meet on this show. The lighting changes within scenes are clumsy, and inexplicable, random lighting states pop up and down like …… a cheese toastie. Perhaps there was a faulty lighting board on Press Night?!
Strike Up The Band is more of an oddity than a forgotten gem but good fun all the same.
Until 31st March 2019
REVIEW: JONNY WARD