Lucky Stiff, Union Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

If there’s one adjective which, when applied to musical theatre, fills one with a sense of trepidation, it’s “zany”. But that’s the only way to describe the first professionally produced collaboration between book writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who would go on to create Once On This Island, Ragtime and Rocky the Musical among many others.

Lucky Stiff contains hints about what the pair would go on to achieve, but it itself looks backwards, constructing a tale (based on the 1983 novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo) that evokes the spirit of a Billy Wilder screwball comedy.

Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) is an unsuccessful London shoe salesman who discovers that his American uncle Tony has left him $6 million in his will, on one condition – that Harry takes Tony’s embalmed body for a dream trip to Monte Carlo, dressed up as an elderly gent in a wheelchair.

The holiday is scuppered by Tony’s lover, Rita (Natalie Moore-Williams), who is on the hunt for the diamonds the pair had stolen from her husband, and the feisty Annabel (Natasha Hoeberigs), a representative of the dogs home who will inherit should Harry forfeit the estate by not fulfilling any of the plans Tony laid out for his cadaver’s dream vacation.

The Union’s fringe revival recreates the opulence of the French Riviera by leaving it to the audience’s imagination. Designer Rueben Speed’s set comprises just a set of door frames and wooden crates, relying instead on the larger-than-life caricatures of the cast to evoke each scenario.

The difficulty with this approach is that it negates the difference between Witherspoon’s humdrum London life and the glitz of Monte Carlo.

Director Paul Callen’s approach also reduces some of the show’s grander numbers, most notably the comedy cabaret number ‘Speaking French’, as Lydia Marcazzó’s Dominique Du Monaco is relegated to a small downstage area in which to perform her larger-than-life routine.

Vocally, though, the humour of Ahrens’ lyrics and the classic musical allusions within Flaherty’s music come through in the numbers. Backed up by MD Richard Baker’s three-piece band and with strong choreography by Jamie Neale, the musical parts of the production are very strong indeed.

Less successful are some of the extreme characters on display. Some of the those adopted by the ensemble cast are wild and wacky with no real purpose, while Ian McCurrach has to suffer the indignity of playing a corpse in a wheelchair while made up like The Joker. Far more successful is Moore-Williams’ Rita, who manages to root the show’s most outrageous personality within a perfectly believable character.

The central roles of Harry and Annabel, following the perfectly formulaic tradition of antagonistic personalities who you just know will fall for each other, benefit greatly from the pairing of Reade and Hoeberigs.

And while Reade could possibly play a little more with Harry’s changes in confidence over the course of the play, the protagonists’ winning personalities root the show in ways that allow all the other zany nonsense to just about work.

Continues until 21 October.