Marti Webb made her West End debut back in 1961 in the original production of Stop the World ? I Want to Get Off. So it may be a bit of a surprise to find her back on a West End stage, over half a century later, playing an ingénue once again.
She is recreating her solo turn in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday, that she first sang in 1979 at Lloyd Webber's private Sydmonton Festival before releasing it first as an album (yes, an LP ? it was that long ago!), then filming it as a TV special, before finally bringing it to the West End stage as the first half of Song & Dance at the Palace Theatre in 1982.
It has become her signature role, but all these years on, there are a few narrative difficulties to its story of a Londoner who looks for love in all the wrong places (or all the wrong men) in America. "If we get our skates on, we can have a few kids as well," she sings to one of her suitors. To give Webb her credit, she sings the line with a visible wink to the audience.
But as she also sings of a relationship with a younger man, "It's not the end of the world if I'm older,/ What's a few birthdays or two?" What indeed? Webb still has what it takes, bringing a spirit of defiance and lingering hope to the show's underlying sadness of disappointed dreams.
Don Black, in his first collaboration of many with Lloyd Webber, created an intricate, intimate portrait of a woman's frequently crushed emotional hopes, and Webb has lived with (and sung) them so often now that they are embedded in her very being. Her voice still has a crystalline purity, even if some of the notes can't be held quite as long as they once could.
The show contains some of Lloyd Webber's very finest melodies, with such haunting songs as 'Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes' and 'You Made me think You were in Love', plus an encore rendition of the gravely beautiful 'Unexpected Song', as well as more jaunty turns like 'I'm Very You, You're Very Me' and 'Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad.'
No director is credited, but Webb navigates its shifting emotional gears with confidence and ease against the physical landscape slides that provide beautiful vistas of New York and LA. There's a small confusion, not answered, about when it is meant to be set: on the one hand, we get one slide that includes the Twin Towers, but others reveal that shows playing on Broadway at the time include Mamma Mia! and Cry-Baby (that opened in 2001 and 2008 respectively). That may only be a tiny niggle, but details count.
And if the show is set now, surely she'd be sending e-mails home, not letters? A director might have sorted this out. But of the musical direction under Simon Lee, there is nothing but praise. Joined by six other onstage players, he makes the score fly and Webb with it.