How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Wilton’s Music Hall, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The self-help book may not seem like the likeliest of genres from which to birth a musical comedy. But Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a sharply satirical work that mercilessly lampoons the office culture that Mad Men would, several decades later, afford a high-budget gloss.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ musical version takes the character of J Pierrepont Finch, whom Mead uses throughout his book to illustrate his examples, and crafts a musical around his ascendancy from a window-washer to the upper echelons of a New York-based conglomerate.

The sexual politics of 1950s office life are reduced to caricature here. The all-male ranks of executives are supported by their female secretaries, and while the former dream of career advancement and promotion, the women of the company consider marriage and a life of housework and childbearing as their principal option.

And yet Loesser’s slyly witty lyrics do at least give the sly wink to the audience that all is not well: when Hannah Grover’s Rosemary, the show’s romantic heroine, sings of her dream of domestic bliss in ‘Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm’, she yearns “to be loved by a man I respect/To bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect”.

As such, How to Succeed… has its cake and eats it: portraying a sexist culture in broadly positive terms without also endorsing it as wholeheartedly as the darker, more cynical and less satisfying Promises, Promises, which is set in almost exactly the same environs.

This revival at Wilton’s Music Hall, directed by Benji Sperring, attempts to portray the entire corporate culture of the multinational World Wide Wicket Corporation with a cast of just ten – which might sound a lot for a Fringe production, but in a show which has eight principal and major supporting roles, there are several group numbers where the lack of personnel is really noticeable.

In some, such as the half-hearted appeal to not treat women as sex objects in ‘A Secretary is Not a Toy’, the lack of numbers is played for laughs, with both Maisey Bawden and Nuwan Hugh Perera playing both male and female characters.

In others, such as an Act II dance sequence as Finch’s advertising scheme inadvertently causes a riot, one yearns for an ensemble large enough to do justice to the absurd plot without making it come across as ridiculous.

What the show does get right is its creation of J Pierrepont Finch as anti-hero rather than a true romantic lead. Broadway revivals have cast Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe as Finch; here, Marc Pickering plays the romantic lead as a twisted, egocentric Pee-wee Herman.

Similarly playing against visual type is Daniel Graham’s dashing Bud Frump, Finch’s nemesis, although there is little work done to elevate his character beyond the nerdy, needy elements which define him. Conversely, Matthew Whitby takes the supporting character of HR manager Mr Bratt, and turns him into one of the show’s more engaging characters.

Lizzii Hills has great fun with the role of Hedy LaRue, the boss’ busty mistress who struggles with the role of secretary, in a performance that owes a lot to that of Maureen Arthur from the musical’s 1967 film adaptation.

The best performance of the evening, however, is delivered by Andrew C Wadsworth as CEO JB Biggley, a drily understated delivery allowing the show’s funniest lines to shine.

Under musical director Ben Ferguson, the nine-piece band excels in performing Loesser’s score – easily the equal of his work for Guys and Dolls, and possibly even its better in places. It is such a shame that the sound levels mean that vocalists’ lyrics risk being lost on occasion, as does the voiceover excerpts of the book which Finch regularly consults.

Further disappointment comes from the set, which despite a two-storey forced perspective backdrop that initially looks the part, suffers from cramped exits and entrances, resulting in difficulties in getting props and characters on and offstage. The overall feel is of a design worthy of a high school production, which does a disservice to both the cast and Loesser’s music.

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