★★★ | Promises, Promises – Southwark Playhouse
‘Promises Promises’ has a fine pedigree. It’s a 1968 musical based on the classic 1960 Billy Wilder film, ‘The Apartment’. The script is by King of the one-liners Neil Simon and the music is from the outstanding duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The set list contains the lilting ‘A House is Not a Home’ and the glorious ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ which topped the charts for Dionne Warwick and Bobby Gentry. Surely, this a case for high expectations being met if ever there was one? Sadly it’s a bit of a mixed bag and isn’t all it pledges to be.
The main problem with the piece is the tone of the musical which feels dated and uncomfortable to watch. It’s more reminiscent of Benny Hill’s stomach curdling capers than the suave sex appeal of ‘Mad Men’. Chuck is a junior executive who accidentally hits on a way to curry favour with his married bosses by lending them his bachelor pad to take their girlfriends to for sex. After a lot of songs, dialogue and an inordinate amount of set up, Chuck realises that the object of his affection, waspish cafeteria worker Fran, is being taken back to the flat by the boss of the company. The first act limps along and feels uncomfortable because of the dated references to women whilst the second act takes a darker turn but feels equally uncomfortable in its bizarre response to one character’s suicide attempt.
There’s a cringe-worthy set piece in Act One where a group of married executives prance around and sing about where to take a girl to have sex on the sly. The girls are of course young and pretty (and largely devoid of character) whilst the executives are overweight and lumbering. The rest of the songs blend into one at times and the script feels less than zippy. Chuck addresses the audience and feels like he should be hilariously funny to watch but he just isn’t. The odd strong one liner that should be really funny (a woman downs a drink in one and he says ‘I’d hate to see her eat!’) barely raises a laugh, feeling lost amongst a swamp of too much dialogue and too many songs. At three hours there feels like not much content over a lot of time.
There are plenty of positives, though. The cast is really skilled and likeable. In spite of his humour falling flat, there’s something really quite loveable about Gabriel Vick’s portrayal of Chuck. Vick is a decidedly good looking man who can belt a tune out and is magnetic. He’s worth the ticket price alone. I defy you not to come out of the theatre with a slight crush on him. Equally strong is Daisy Maywood as the sharp-tongued but soft-centred Fran. Naturally, there are good songs among the setlist (it’s Bacharach and David. They write bloody good songs). Simon Wells slightly creaky set feels fun and is versatile and the choreography is filled with joyous moments.
Although this musical misses the mark by a mile in many ways it’s still worth a stroll to the delightful Southwark Playhouse just to see such strong performances and sit back for a few hours and let the music wash over you. Just don’t listen to the words too closely.
Promises, Promises plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 18th February 2017
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.