Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Is Promises, Promises really only three hours long? It feels longer, and not in a good way. Based on Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, this musical has some serious creative welly behind it, with a book by Neil Simon and songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But to be blinded by such prestige would be to ignore a skewed sense of 1960s sexual politics that struggles to be counterbalanced by much warmth and heart, and takes an age to tell its story.

What charm there is emanates from Gabriel Vick as Chuck, an office junior who attempts to curry favour with his superiors by allowing them to borrow his residence for their adulterous liaisons, and Daisy Maywood as Fran, the restaurant worker he has fallen for.

Together, the duo fizz with the same chemistry as Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine had in Wilder’s original film. Vick revels in the moments in which Simon’s script has him confiding in the audience, making us warm to him even as he enables his work colleagues’ infidelities for the promise of personal gain.

Maywood has a much more thankless task, being saddled with a character that feels perpetually weighed down by being the target of the company’s adulterous HR manager, Sheldrake.

The conceit that Fran could be so in love with her paramour that she cannot see Chuck’s obvious affection for her requires a partner who is charismatic and charming even as he cheats: unfortunately, while Paul Robinson has a cool, Sinatra-esque vibe to his singing voice, it cannot compensate for a failure to present any reason why Fran would even look twice at him.

And when it comes to the songs, this production demonstrates just why the only one Bacharach/David composition to break out on its own is ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ (a couple of the other duo’s songs were inserted into the show for its 2010 Broadway revival, not all of which make it into this production, despite the programme notes’ suggestion to the contrary).

Much of the rest of the score see the classic songwriting duo on autopilot, with a score that is not helped by its reduction to Fringe-sized arrangements.

Despite a seven-piece band under musical director Joe Louis Robinson, Bacharach’s music often sounds over-synthesised, losing much of the warmth with which the composer is associated.

Quite the best arrangement is Vick’s solo guitar performance of ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’, for which we have to wait two and a half hours from the first curtain.

Part of the reason for the show’s length involves some tortuously slow scene changes, hampered by a ramshackle wooden set with sliding doors that may have looked good on paper, but in reality are slow and noisy, and with semi-translucent panels that render some scenes nearly invisible from all but a sliver of the audience.

Several scene changes take so long that choreographer Cressida Carré struggles to keep a sense of pace and movement with her ensemble work.

Even then, the set has a better defined character than most of the women in the cast. Save for Maywood’s Fran, the women in the cast each play multiple roles, most of which are so ill-defined they are not even referred to by name.

One exception, and a welcome one, for is Alex Young’s Marge, whose drunken flirtation with an equally buzzed Vick kicks Act II off with a sense of fun and frivolity absent from most of the first.

Indeed, Act II is a big improvement on the first, despite some equally murky attitudes towards the sexes and an uneven tone in storytelling.

Fran’s suicide attempt following a rejection by Sheldrake is foiled by Chuck and his stereotypical Jewish doctor neighbour, but her recovery is kicked off by a duet (‘A Young Pretty Girl Like You’) by the two men telling her to, in effect, cheer up love – because as men they deserve to see a pretty girl smile.

By the end of the piece, Vick and Maywood continue their relationship with the same sparkle that provides a bright thread through the rest of the show.

But honestly this is a show which requires more awareness of the murkiness of the sexual politics than director Bronagh Lagan seems capable.

This is no How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a show which at least demonstrates a level of self-awareness in its portrayal of the battle of the sexes. This is more ‘How to Succeed in Business in Spite of Being a Misogynist’, which is far less edifying.

Continues until February 18.

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