Ruthless! The Musical, a campy, vampy cult show about vaulting show business ambition that's like an unholy cross between All About Eve, Annie and Carrie, has been kicking around for over a quarter of a century now since its Off-Broadway premiere. Although the production that has now arrived at the Arts Theatre is billing itself as its British premiere, the show was in fact previously produced at Stratford East's Stratford Circus back in 2002.
It's showing its age, not just in its outdated use of drag for its larger-than-life lead character in an otherwise all-female cast - the sort of role obviously indebted to such Off-Broadway stalwarts as Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch - but also in its frame of old film and theatre references that liberally sprinkle Joel Paley's book and lyrics, set to a pastiche score by veteran Broadway musical director Marvin Laird.
It's all one big, knowing, in-joke of a musical that's probably most famous for launching the careers of Natalie Portman and Britney Spears, who were understudies in the original production for the role of Tina, a precocious 8-year-old aspiring actress, who throws a tantrum when she's cast not in the lead but as an understudy to the lead in the school musical. So there's something slightly meta about Portman and Spears subsequently becoming stars, though neither actually murdered the girl Laura Bell Bundy whom they were covering - though Bundy herself has had an adult career as the original lead in Legally Blonde on Broadway.
Talk of murder may require a little bit of a spoiler alert, though it’s all signalled so early on that you're not going to be surprised - or disappointed to know that it's coming. In fact everything about the show's plotting is sign-posted a mile off that you won't be surprised by any of it; it goes from terrible to terminal (in every sense), with every character drawn (and often played) so broadly that it freezes the smile on your face.
Dancing on Ice's Jason Gardiner is the star turn as the drag diva Sylvia St Croix, who positions herself as an agent to child stars (but in fact has a show business past of her own). It's a performance so broad that it chews the scenery and spits it out at the audience; we are in serious danger of getting splinters. The same is sadly true of Tracie Bennett, last seen to such splendid effect in the National's Follies, who vamps up the role of young Tina's grandmother, a theatre critic who hates musicals particularly - though as a theatre critic who loves them myself, I started to feel sympathy with her view watching this show and the contortions she has to put herself through as she sings of her contempt (she walks with such bowed legs that I'm worried that the bill of physiotherapy may turn out to be the biggest budget spend of the show).
There's a little more grit and polish in Kim Maresca as Tina's mum (reprising a role she played in the show's 2015 Off-Broadway revival) and Lara Denning in dual roles, while Harriet Thorpe is reliably bolshy as the school teacher Myrna Thorn.
It is, however, a treat to look at, in Morgan Large's handsome designs, that transform form a suburban house - all floral patterned wallpaper and dresses - to a swanky Manhattan penthouse apartment.
Ruthless! The Musical Tickets are available now.
Photos credit Alastair Muir