When it’s as cold as November in April, a vintage musical comedy filled with dazzling tunes and tap dancing is undoubtedly the best way to lift the spirits. Whether the plucky underdogs will put on their show against the odds is never in doubt and the rather rickety story is an excuse to quickstep from one glorious Rodgers and Hart song to another: the frequently-covered ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, the achingly lovely ‘Where or When’, and if ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’ doesn’t make you want to dance, then there’s something wrong with you. David Ball’s inventively homespun production, with lively choreography by Lizzi Gee, is predominantly made up of recent graduates and if the material is executed with a little more exuberance than finesse, much can be forgiven in the spirit of toe-tapping fun.
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive version of Babes in Arms: the original 1937 production had a rather subversive political angle; a 1939 film of the same name gave Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney their immortal line, “Let’s put on a show in the barn!” but bizarrely rejected most of the original songs. This production uses a book reworked by George Oppenheimer in the 1950s (complete with references to 50s icons such as Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot) that replaces communism with a milder sense of teenage rebellion. If it isn’t quite a chance to hear the songs in their original context, it’s still a pleasure to hear them in some kind of context.
A group of apprentices-cum-slaves are desperate to get a start in the theatre industry (these days, they’d be called interns) and are exploited by the unscrupulous manager of a mouldering regional theatre. Led by aspiring composer Valentine (James Lacey, playing his own gender after his turn as Lady Angela in Patience), with whom the adorable Susie (Catriona Mackenzie) is smitten, the youngsters plan to put on a revue. This is threatened when a dreadful Southern melodrama by the egomaniac actor, writer and director Lee Calhoun (Stuart Pattenden) is extended. Calhoun’s co-star, the former child star Jennifer Owen (a sweet-voiced Carly Thoms), a nice girl dominated by her pushy stage mother (it might have been more fun if she’d been an obnoxious Dainty June-type), captures Val’s attention and sparks Susie’s jealousy. The greatest flaw in Oppenheimer’s book is the way in which Val and Jennifer’s romance fizzles out without any resolution, despite having shared the show’s loveliest love duets.
The most endearing performance comes from Mackenzie as the lovestruck Susie. Although she isn’t entirely comfortable with the high passages (the keys should have been changed to lower the melody), she displays a very winning stage personality, combining childlike mischievousness with plaintive yearning. Jenny Perry is also highly engaging as Bunny, co-owner of the theatre, put-upon assistant to the manager and perpetual maid who seizes her chance to be a leading lady, and Anna McGarahan and Ben Redfern spark off each other entertainingly as the on-off ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’ couple, though Redfern seems slightly more mature than the other apprentices.
Reflecting the apprentices’ own mend-and-make-do style of theatrecraft on a shoestring and a wobbly stepladder, Ball makes a particularly resourceful use of props. Entering the auditorium into what looks like a scruffy backstage area (designed by Katinka Taylor) with crew members sewing, gossiping and woodworking, they build up a rhythm of sweeping, hammering and tapping before they are joined by the band, which transports the audience into an escapist world of showbusiness, where the play-within-a-play The Deep North almost makes Noises Off’s Nothing On look professional.
Babes in Arms is playing at the Union Theatre until 12 May. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.