Forever Plaid, St James Theatre Studio, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Revue musical cabarets are so frequent that each new one almost requires a gimmick in order to stand out among the crowd. For Forever Plaid, the Off-Broadway revue created by Stuart Ross in 1990, the musical McGuffin is that a four-piece close harmony group, The Plaids, were killed on the way to their big break – and now, in the afterlife, they attempt to perform the show they never managed in life.

As narrative principles go, it’s a slight one, but it’s applied lightly enough that the comedy the show derives from it comes across delightfully. Starting out as inexperienced performers, practicing with five-foot long sink plungers in place of microphones, the Plaids progress through a series of classic numbers, gaining in skill and confidence until they get the opportunity to perform their dream number, ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’.

But while what little plot there is suggests a gradual improvement in the men’s performance, the reality of the four singers on stage is that they are consistently strong throughout. Jon Lee and Keith Jack are perhaps the two most recognisable faces of the quartet, and the vocal qualities for which they have become well known are definite assets here. But the Plaids are a genuine foursome, benefiting greatly from Luke Striffler’s vocals and charm, while Matthew Quinn’s tall, bespectacled bass player is perhaps underserved by the material but gets the occasional opportunity to shine.

The affection Ross has for the era when he created this show is evident throughout – never more so than during an extended sequence gently mocking middle-of-the-road crooner Perry Como. It’s an affection which director and choreographer Grant Murphy clearly shares, creating a well-crafted sensation of time and place that contributes to the warm glow this musical can’t help but provide. An extended sequence involving veteran TV variety show host Ed Sullivan doesn’t quite land, and during some numbers the balance between the four male voices and musical director Anthony Gabriele’s doesn’t quite work, but it would take a lot to wrest the charm away from the evening.

The musical numbers, from well-known classics ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ to less popular, but no less delightful numbers such as ‘Perfidia’, are redolent with the sound of 1950s Americana. But unbeknown to the Plaids, their world was changing. From their stasis in the afterlife, the Beatles are part of their close harmony tradition, rather than the game changers that they went on to be. For this group, and for an audience spending a little under two hours in their company, time stands still and the music of the era is everything.

Forever Plaid continues at the St James Theatre until April 24.