There's an infectious charm about All Star Productions' welcome revival of the 1960 musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' that allows the somewhat archaic show to be enjoyed without feeling purposefully refreshed or a musty museum piece. As a show, it's not without its troubles - the last Broadway revival was universally panned, and despite being a staple for US High School, Camp and Summer Stock productions, its performance history in the UK is relatively unknown.
Written to capitalise on the fever and hysteria surrounding rock star Elvis Presley being drafted to the army, the show reads as a satire of 50s America - from the square mid-western family to the racial attitudes of an older generation - this is a show that is set firmly in a specific period of time which has been wholeheartedly embraced in this witty and energetic production.
All Star Productions operate out of a modest pub theatre venue in Walthamstow, north London and have gained a reputation for presenting forgotten classics in a small environment with exceptional casts and refreshing new arrangements. This was certainly the highest quality of production I've seen at the venue, from the simple set to the tight choreography that boasts big ambitions but feels fully realised.
Set on a multi-functional corner thrust stage made to look like a 50s Diner, the stage space remained clear throughout, allowing each corner to be fully utilised by Anthony Whitman's exceptional choreography. Number such as "The Telephone Hour" and "Lots of Living To Do" were delivered energetically with intricate and period specific choreography, raising the iconic numbers to a new and exciting level.
James Hume's direction was both clean and slick, using the size and shape of the playing space to full effect. It was evident that a lot of work had been done on the challenging thrust to ensure an even balance in scenes as well as ensuring all aspects were clear to the audience. The tone was pitched perfectly right, bringing the charm of the show to the forefront and not overloading extraneous themes or unnecessary modern parallels. Despite the awkward structure of musicals of the era, the pace remained constant and driving, thanks in part to the unfussy staging and a well drilled company.
Musical Director Aaron Clingham breathes new life into the numbers with fresh arrangements that never overpower the vocalists. Sensitive drumming in particular from Janette Williams supported each number and allowed the acoustic vocals to carry effectively.
The talented ensemble each played a varied track of characters, brimming with life and idiosyncrasies. At times some characterisations pushed too hard and felt a little campy, but on the whole these were restrained in all the right places. Abigail Matthews was a delight to watch with a beautiful soprano and expressive, open face that made 'Kim' fully believable and watchable, matched by Zac Hamilton's Conrad Birdie.
Liberty Buckley takes on the role of Spanish Rose 'Rose Alvarez', a part that has become synonymous with Broadway icon Chita Rivera. She dances up a storm throughout her solo numbers, commanding the stage in numbers such as "An English Teacher" and "Spanish Rose", and delivers an impressive "Shriner's Ballet" that has the male ensemble hanging off her every move.
In the twitter age of celebrity where teenage hysteria over 'One Direction' can reach similar levels of fever pitch, it's interesting to evaluate 'Bye Bye Birdie' as a window onto a previous and much simpler time. This is a rare chance to see a Broadway classic presented with style and rough-around-the-edges-charm that make it well worth the journey to Walthamstow.