After a period when the Great American Musical seemed to rule supreme, the British musical is making a comeback and, instead of relying on the staging gimmicks of the past, now plot, music and lyrics thankfully seem to be central.
A musical adaptation of the 18th Century comedy She Stoops to Conquer may seem an unlikely concept but, in Howard Goodall and Charles Hart’s glorious chamber musical, The Kissing Dance, it seems a perfect marriage.
Two young suitors, Hastings and Marlow, set out to the countryside to meet their respective loves but, thanks to a practical joke, end up staying at the stately home of one of the brides to be, under the mistaken impression that they are in fact staying at a local inn.
It all sounds highly implausible but this comedy of manners and mistaken identities is so wittily crafted than any absurdness seems totally natural.
It helps that the setting has been shifted from the 1700s to Edwardian and, therefore, without the need for elaborate period costumes and wigs the action flows much more naturalistically.
Goodall’s score is as one would expect from the composer an evocatively rich mix of choral, pastoral and romantic, combining complex interwoven melody with deceptively simple folk songs.
Charles Hart’s lyrics allows Goldsmith’s original material to form a strong base but adds in an intricately crafted lyric that plays with rhyme and form to deliver a fast moving comic narrative.
There are echoes of Gilbert & Sullivan in the word play but the piece not only honours those great showmen and the original play but builds on this to create a piece that stands on its own merit.
Director Lotte Wakeham and musical director Tom Attwood have chosen to stage the piece using actor musicians and, in the intimate space of the Jermyn Street Theatre, it’s an inspired choice. The versatile cast provides accomplished accompaniment to the piece, allowing pace to be maintained. It is also a rare pleasure to be able to hear a musical score performed unamplified.
There are beautifully observed performances from the entire ensemble, all drilled to split second precision on Tim Jackson’s simple but effective choreography. Highlights include Ian Virgo’s outwardly shy but inwardly lothario, Marlow, Gina Beck’s beautifully sung object of his affection, Kate and Beverley Klien’s gloriously theatrical lady of this house, Mrs Hardcastle.
Comedic credit of the evening however must go to Jack Shalloo for a mesmerising turn as Tony Lumpkin, the orchestrator of the evening’s mistaken identity crisis. Shalloo delivers a performance of constantly bubbling mischief that always catches the eye without distracting from other performances.
The Kissing Dance was first performed by the National Youth Theatre in 1999 starring a then unknown Sheridan Smith. This production, however, is the professional premiere and, like its now famous former star, deserves to go onto my wider recognition of a classic home grown British chamber musical.