“Something’s cooking in The Spitfire Grill”, so the lyric goes. From what I can see, what’s cooking in the Union Theatre’s production of 2001 off-Broadway show The Spitfire Grill consists of equal parts top class talent and a brilliant score, topped off with just a sprinkling of cheese (because what good musical isn’t?). It follows the story of recently released prisoner Percy Talbott as she starts her new life in the Wisconsin town of Gilead, taking a job in the run-down Spitfire Grill and helping to sell it through a raffle and essay competition.
Entering the Union Theatre there is not a set piece in sight, leaving it down to the show’s cast to mime a lot of actions and move a few tables around. This simplicity gives the production a homely and inclusive feel, making the audience truly engaged in the small town dramas of Gilead. It also gives Act One closer ‘Shoot The Moon’ all the more impact, as cast members pour out what must be hundreds of essay entries into the centre of the stage – a complete juxtaposition to the limited nature of the rest of the staging. Jack Weir’s expert use of lighting ensures that the story remains easy to follow and utterly beautiful to watch, effortlessly transporting audience members from a jail to a bus stop to a morning sunrise.
A clear sense of style and genre prevails throughout James Valcq and Fred Alley’s country music-inspired score. Although this could risk becoming boring or repetitive, it manages to keep reinventing itself and ensures that no two songs sound exactly the same. Lyrically it is also strong, with words and music seamlessly weaving together to create one of the most instantly enjoyable musical soundtracks I have heard for a long time, sticking with me way after I left the theatre. Simon Holt’s musical direction is also wonderful, with a small band in the corner of the theatre playing a range of instruments to keep up this sense of homeliness and simplicity.
Another treat is the cast of The Spitfire Grill, with each member of the small ensemble more than carrying their weight of the production. Lead Belinda Wollaston gives her performance as Percy Talbott real passion and naturalness, and her outstanding vocals captivate the audience at all times – particularly during the striking opener, ‘A Ring Around The Moon’. Another stand-out performance comes from Natalie Law as Shelby Thorpe, who provides an equally stunning vocal performance, which is at its best during the emotional solos ‘When Hope Goes’ and ‘Wild Bird’.
A masterclass in how to do a traditional American musical, The Spitfire Grill leaves you in great spirits and makes a triumphant London début.
The Spitfire Grill is playing at the Union Theatre until 15 August. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.