I had never heard of On The 20th Century when invited along to see the show, but one thing is for certain, I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. The Union Theatre yet again proves that it is the place to be for an evening of spectacular entertaining operetta/musical in their intimate studio theatre. Set on the 20th Century Train that travels for 16 hours between New York and Chicago, the headaches and heartaches of theatre life are brought about in melodramatic stock characters and a story of enduring love. It is all over the top, side-splittingly funny, and certainly has a catchy song or two.

It almost seems apt to have On The 20th Century performing in the arches of the Union Theatre. With the show taking place on a train, and the soft sounds of the real trains running ahead en route to Waterloo, a real connection is made between the show and the space. Suitably impressive is Ryan McBryde’s use of space for such an elongated stage that the Union has, and by no means an easy task to fit a few musical dancing numbers around into. Yet with Diego Pitarch extremely clever and simple staging, which see’s the majority of the settings built by suitcases and two wood doors, the space is flexible and allows the cast to really knock out a good dance or two (all in a rather slap-stick manner).

There are exceptional singers throughout the cast especially Rebecca Vere as the leading Lily Garland. Her voice can certainly rival any West End lead, and in the confines of the Union Theatre is wonderfully full, rich and astonishingly versatile. Her portrayal as the Hollywood star caught in a ‘stale’ moment in her career is captivating, and is easily one of the best performances on this scale I have seen all year. Another delightful treat comes in Valda Aviks as Letita Peabody Primrose, the slightly ‘nuts’ woman whose religious outbursts of “Repent” are hilarious. Aviks sense of character and excellent vocal as well as physical play had me in hysterics which is no easy task! Often it is Aviks soprano voice that pushes the ensemble singing up an extra satisfying notch throughout the show.

For the best part the songs are comical antidotes to the plot and the theatrical lifestyle. The main song ‘On The 20th Century‘ is wonderfully split into harmonies, giving each performer an opportunity to shine with their vocals. Other songs to strike a laugh and smile included the dotty ‘Repent‘ and ‘She’s A Nut‘, the latter referring to Mrs Primrose lack of sanity, which as it climaxes brings about a wonderfully slap-stick hunt for her, and the repeated ‘She’s a nut’ phrase that you can’t help but to laugh at. Also wonderfully concieved are the interludes of ‘I have Written A Play‘ where the train conductor, a senate member and a doctor declare they have written plays about their working lives. The repetition of these outbursts are excellently dispersed.

Whilst On The 20th Century might not be well known, it’s humorous look at back-stage trials and tribulations are wonderfully structured. Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book is thoroughly engaging, with plot twists, and some excellently funny character developments throughout. If there was one criticism to be made is the show in its current state is too long. The second act needs to be shaven down by a few minutes as the 2 hours 10 minutes as advertised is more 2 hours and 30 minutes, and it does bare a little on the audience towards the end. A conclusion is needed before several of the last songs which don’t offer too much. Saying this, On The 20th Century is a hidden gem of a operetta, which at times falls into moments of comical farce and ‘screwball comedy’ it is definitely worth seeing.

On The 20th Century is playing at the Union Theatre until 15th January 2011. Tickets can be brought through the Union Theatre’s website.