I always mean to see more theatre outside London, but find myself deterred by astronomical train fares, so I was delighted to be notified of Southern Rail’s 90% off sale. How fortunate, as Stephen Mear’s production of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s romantic musical She Loves Me is as perfect a piece of theatre as I have ever seen, delivering two and a half hours of the kind of theatrical bliss that’s absolutely priceless.
It seems unfair that She Loves Me (which premiered on Broadway in 1963) was somewhat eclipsed by Harnick and Bock’s smash hit Fiddler On The Roof a year later, being a masterclass of romantic comedy with intelligence. Its basic story – an epistolary romance between shop assistants who bicker by day and unknowingly exchange heartfelt letters by night– originating from Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s 1937 play Parfumerie, has been used many times over. As if it the fuzziness stakes couldn’t be raised any higher, it ends on Christmas Eve.
It’s as if She Loves Me was written to be a chamber piece, sitting perfectly in Chichester’s more intimate, horseshoe-shaped Minerva Theatre. Anthony Ward’s glass-fronted revolving design takes us right inside a bespoke parfumerie in a 1930s Central European fantasyland, full of jewel-coloured fripperies. Chic and beautifully cut costumes complete the picture of tasteful glamour.
Mear, perhaps the best theatre choreographer working today, shows himself to be equally assured as a director. As befits a choreographer, the timing is spot-on and the pace zips along. The two set pieces, ‘A Romantic Atmosphere,’ and ‘Twelve Days To Christmas’ are masterpieces of small-scale spectacle. The former takes place in a decadent café with tango dancers and the latter the frantic countdown to Christmas, both of which are executed with an extraordinary amount of control.
Dianne Pilkington is simply adorable as the klutzy, yet quick-thinking Amalia, displaying a shimmering soprano. Her poignancy is matched by her comic timing, particularly when hopping around on one shoe before accepting Georg’s peace offering of vanilla ice cream. Her leading man, Joe McFadden, is appealingly shy and eager and full of charm.
They’re supported by one of the most charming ensemble casts I’ve ever encountered. Annette McLoughlin is a total delight as the unlucky-in-love Ilona, entangled with the über-debonair Steven Kodaly (caddish charm personified by Clark Gable lookalike Matthew Goodgame). Steve Elias’s Sipos is full of bumbling charm and Jack Chisseck’s shop owner Mr Maraczek nimbly whisks us back to his waltzing days by the Danube. Credit also goes to Gavin McCluskey’s aspirational delivery boy and Lee Ormsby’s impeccable Head Waiter, providing a sardonically sympathetic shoulder to cry on in Amalia’s hour of need.
A divine treat that’s tied up with a satin ribbon. I wafted back to London on a cloud of vanilla ice cream with a memory that I’ll treasure for a very long time.
She Loves Me plays at Chichester Festival Theatre (Minerva Theatre) until June 18th. For more information and tickets, please click here.