Promises, Promises review of Burt Bacharach's musical at the Southwark Playhouse
Sometimes a revolutionary musical rears its head in a peculiar form. Whilst Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Neil Simon weren't necessarily advancing either style or content in their 1968 musical Promises, Promises the musical sound was certainly pushing the boundaries of how contemporary music could fit the musical comedy mode. As Hair exploded onto the Broadway stage the previous season changing the face of musical theatre up a gear, popular music writer Bacharach used his unique skills to create a musical version of Billy Wilder's film 'The Apartment'. Using voices in the pit as part of the orchestration, Bacharach created a new kind of sound for the Broadway stage in this show that's never yet been revived in London following the original 1969 production.
There are peaks and troughs in this pleasant but somewhat tentative revival at the Southwark Playhouse which wears its heart on its sleeve and is ultimately blessed with two fantastic leads who battle to keep you onside. At three hours it inevitably sags and there's never quite enough meat on the bones to warrant spending that much time in its company. The sexual politics are obviously dated, and whilst it attempts a 'Mad Men' style justification of a world where gormless executives chase their secretaries, it's presented without satire or bite which can read as rather tiresome to a modern eye.
The main problem in Simon's book is its changes in tone – whilst the first act roars with smutty jokes and sexist office-based sexual comedy, the second act probes at mental health, suicide and an attempt at a convincing relationship. The female characters, so faintly drawn they're barely visible, prove difficult to connect with whilst the men are so base and broad that they rarely extend beyond parody. Jokes are set up and land sometimes without reaction and the script really begins to show its age.
It's a problem director Bronagh Lagan never fully solves, and for all the uplifting melodies it's the book scenes where the energy falls flat. The audience are spoken to directly by Baxter but it's with a gentle shrug of the shoulders rather than a zippy grab-em-by-the-collar that Simon's book ultimately requires. We need to hit the ground running and be instantly involved, when in truth it took a good while for the first laugh of the evening to land – a problem in musical comedy.
Neil Simon was known as a champion musical-comedy fixer, frequently drafted in to perform life-changing surgery on shows out of town, often being told to just add pages of jokes and make a book that isn't working funny. In Promises, Promises there are moments of comedic genius, namely the opening of the second act where Chuck picks up a rogue barfly on Christmas Eve. Although a deviation from both plot, and in some cases sense, the role offers a scene stealing (and Tony Award-winning) moment for a comedic character actress, a much needed jolt of energy that Alex Young takes in her stride. It's here that the time begins to fly and you settle in to have a good time.
If the show is to be remembered for one thing other than the score it's the opportunity for choreography, and here Michael Bennett's famous “Turkey Lurkey Time” is ably delivered by Clare Doyle, Natalie Moore-Williams and Emily Squibb, although it fails to bring down the house as well it might, not building to a climax and using the static males on the sidelines that sometimes cloud the energy. Of the ensemble, they collectively have a tight and powerful vocal sound but feel somewhat underused, despite the often laboured set changes that once again slow the pace.
The true delight of the production is the careful chemistry between Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood who are both easy to fall for and exude charm and a genial performance style. Whilst Vick doesn't have the sharp audience repartee that helped Sean Hayes connect in the last Broadway production, he does have a sympathetic, yet never pitiful, manner that helps you invest on a more intimate level. With a cracking voice, he delivers each Bacharach song with style, barely leaving the stage. Maywood brings life to the waifish Fran through her knock-out vocals and charming presentation, but the character itself remains a complete mystery and you're never quite sure when she's in control or at her most vulnerable.
Despite a somewhat wobbly press night it would be unfair to say that the production is without its charm, although at three hours it does prove to be more taxing than it ought to be. The songs fly thick and fast, and despite being listed in the programme the number interpolated for the recent revival “I Say a Little Prayer” was skipped. Whether it's in or not, Bacharach fans will find much to enjoy in Eliot Davis and Steve Edis' reduced orchestration that keeps the spirit and soul of the numbers alive, but sadly I can't promise much more than that.