Thom Southerland’s new production of the gender-bending, joyously camp Victor/Victoria is not to be missed. While it must be said that the score is not entirely consistent, the lyrics teeter between barely acceptable and rather clever, and the book that is not quite as enthralling as it could be, the creative team have made something very special in this production. There are some superbly executed directorial touches. Lee Proud’s choreography is intelligent, varied and beautifully executed, and the cast is absolutely mesmerizing.
With a book by Blake Edwards, music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, this musical comedy follows Victoria Grant, a struggling but talented soprano. She cannot get work in the clubs of Paris until Toddy, an out of work gay cabaret singer, convinces her to impersonate Europe’s most celebrated female impersonator, thereby becoming a woman playing a man playing a woman. Confusion, questions and threats ensue, naturally. The script has a lot to say – about civil rights and the place of women, about acceptance and truth – but skilfully manages to make big statements that are still relevant today without suffocating the audience in lectures and morals. Mancini’s music is at times beautiful, and musical director Joe Atkins’ lovely new arrangements also deserve a mention.
The stars of the show are without a doubt the perfect Anna Francolini who plays Victoria with skill and precision, and Richard Dempsey as a lavishly effete Toddy. The two have an instant chemistry on stage, and both have stunning voices. Francolini’s performance mixes pain and passion, tenderness and strength to create a vivid cocktail that is captivating. She expertly channels Julie Andrews, who originated the role, but brings her own sparkling charisma to it. Dempsey clearly revels in playing the exuberant, camp Toddy, and excels in the role. His comic timing is sublime, and he also captures the more aching, sensitive side of the role.
Matthew Cutts gives a solid performance as Victoria’s romantic interest, as does Michael Cotton as his confused bodyguard. Jean Perkins has occasional scene-stealing power in her various roles – from maid to waitress to magician. Of the strong ensemble, Matthew Pennington is a compelling performer particularly in his appearances as Toddy’s sometime lover Richard. The characterful ensemble has no trouble mastering the varying dance styles in Proud’s crisp, thrilling choreography, particularly in the stand out numbers Le Jazz Hot and Louis Says.
Southerland, who has previously had successes at the Southwark Playhouse with Mack & Mable and Parade, outdoes himself with this production. He makes great use of the potentially problematic Southwark Playhouse Vault, and creates a delightfully decadent and yet gritty cabaret atmosphere. There is an edge to this production that goes beyond superficial glitz; the sense of intimacy and immediacy is highly effective. Martin Thomas’ set and costume design paired with Howard Hudson’s vibrant lighting design makes this quite possibly the most colourful tunnel in all of London. It is not an easy space, but the team have found some ingenious ways of working with it.
Victor/Victoria is by no means perfect material. However this production cements the reputation of the Southwark Playhouse as one of London’s best fringe theatres. The quality of this show rivals that of the West End, and the atmosphere created far outshines many more conventional theatres. It is a delight that is sure the keep audiences going back for more.
Victor/Victoria runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 15 December 2012. For more information and tickets visit the Southwark Playhouse website at www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.