'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' review – a fun, inclusive take on a flawed satire

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Joining the triumphant Guys & Dolls in London is another, lesser-known Frank Loesser musical from 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Based on a humorous mock-instructional manual by Shepherd Mead, who, like the show’s protagonist, climbed the corporate ladder from the mail room to becoming vice-president of an advertising agency, it’s a too-gentle satire enlivened by Loesser’s bouncy songs.

Other than a production back in the 60s, and a few fringe revivals since, like one at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017, How to Succeed hasn’t really struck it big in London – and the Broadway revival in 2011 was mostly notable for featuring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe. But are there ways to make this very period show palatable for a modern audience?

Director Georgie Rankcom, who helmed the similarly tricky Anyone Can Whistle at Southwark Playhouse last year, takes the same bold, inclusive approach here with their gender-blind casting. The blustering boss of the World Wide Wicket Company, JB Biggley, is played by Tracie Bennett, and the ambitious ladder-climber, J Pierrepont Finch, by Gabrielle Friedman, while Rosemary Pilkington, the secretary who pines after Finch, is played by trans performer Allie Daniel.

It makes the examination of the ridiculously rigid gender roles in Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie’s Gilbert’s book that bit sharper. Instantly, it’s more a wry critique of misogynistic attitudes than a problematic portrayal of them.

The exception to that is Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s demanding mistress, who is simply played as a pouting vamp by Annie Aitken. Even if she’s in on the joke, it still feels uncomfortably reductive. The odd song is also beyond saving – like the unfortunate “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. Workplace sexual harassment cannot be reduced to a punch-line.

Otherwise, this is a decent skewering of the business world, with its ridiculous jargon, empty titles, yes-men and endless memos, but pushed to riotous extremes – a sort of slapstick Mad Men. The supposedly naïve Finch might be cleverly manipulating those around him, thanks to his guidebook (voiced in pre-recorded segments by Drag Race’s Michelle Visage), but everyone here is pulling some scam or pretending they know what they’re doing.

Are we meant to be rooting for Finch to, well, succeed? That’s a thorny question, given his ill treatment of Rosemary and others thanks to his blinkered approach. Should we condemn this as venal, hard-edged, Trumpian capitalism (there is a gag about Finch becoming President) – or is he really just showing up the absurdities of the system?

Friedman maintains that ambiguity in a performance packed with the kind of “Aw shucks” non-threatening charm that gets Finch through the door, while also showing his ruthlessness in casually breaking promises to Rosemary when it suits him. He also coolly outmanoeuvres Biggley’s brattish nephew, the marvellously named Bud Frump, who relies solely on nepotism – via whining to his mommy – to progress. Elliot Gooch turns him into a deliciously camp villain.

Bennett has great fun with Biggley, delivering his world-weary one-liners in a gruff growl, while also showing off her vocal gymnastics in “Love From a Heart of Gold”. But the standout here is Daniel, who gives the show its heart via earnest (yet knowing) ballads like “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”, or her giddy part in “Rosemary”, where Finch finally declares his love. Daniel also supplies wonderfully inventive comic line readings, making a meal and a half out of the word “lunch”.

But Rankcom’s production suffers from pushing practically everything to cartoonish extremes; it becomes rather exhausting over a far-too-long runtime. The set is all Barbie pinks, purples and blues, plus a neon-lit ladder: a very literal, and overly dominating, symbol. It makes the feather-light plot even harder to take seriously.

The saving grace is Loesser’s gorgeous, jazzy numbers: the breezy “Been a Long Day”, the spot-on spoof of an Ivy League college fight song, the hilarious wardrobe disaster lament “Paris Original”, and the breakout hit “Brotherhood of Man”, which rescues a flagging second half.

I don’t know how much this musical really has to say about an era where we’re more concerned with WFH and Zoom etiquette, nor is it nimble enough to be purely a comic skit. But, thanks to some winning performances and Loesser’s hummable tunes, it’s generally a good day at the office.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is at Southwark Playhouse through 17 June. Book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)

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