The Kissing Dance / Bed & Sofa

The Kissing Dance, Jermyn Street Theatre; Bed & Sofa, Finborough Theatre,

reviewed for The Spectator, 27 April 2011

Alastair Parker and Kaisa Hammarlund in Bed & Sofa

Alastair Parker and Kaisa Hammarlund in Bed & Sofa

There’s something awkward about the phrase “British musical”. It’s hard to think of the British musical as independent from the Broadway musical, which has dwarfed it for a hundred years, first with its procession of glamour‘n’glitz and then the demagogic ecstasy offered by its rock musical tradition. Even Britain’s most famous creator of musical theatre in our lifetimes – Andrew Lloyd Weber – remains most successful for those of his works which sound distinctly American.

It didn’t always have to be this way: the popular ballad opera form – from which The Beggar’s Opera emerged – was a London sensation when Broadway was a still a trading trail for the type of Dutchmen who thought singing was dangerous because it might lead to dancing. The greatest British musical of recent years, Elton John’s heart-rending Billy Elliot, authentically captures the anthems and choral texture of a working class community’s song, just as The Beggar’s Opera, too, drew on the music of a class of people who, lacking time and money, made their own entertainment through popular chorus. So it’s a treat to hear Howard Goodall and Charles Hart return to the roots of popular English song to create another great British musical in The Kissing Dance, a reworking of She Stoops To Conquer, which opened this week at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

In an inspired choice, director Lotte Wakeham has cast this romantic comedy as an ensemble of actor-musicians, emphasising the lighthearted, community feel of the entertainment. We could be watching a series of musical sketches performed at the pub, except that you’ll be lucky to find such polished performances on stage anywhere, let alone your local house of ill repute. Wakeham is a rising young director to watch, especially in the world of musical theatre, and she proves it by matching the performative punch of Hart’s characteristically witty lyrics with a softer, natural tone perfect for the small dimensions of the Jermyn Street Theatre. Much of the credit also belongs to Tim Jackson’s deliciously comic choreography. Jackson performs feats of ingenious creativity in this tiny space, making physically manifest the most obscure jokes in the score, but never losing their subtlety. There’s a coyness to some of the minor performances that occasionally seems stagey, but the core performances are uniformly impressive. Ian Virgo, in particular, is outstanding as an awkward, yet testerone-fuelled young courtier. And Beverly Klein is worth the price of admission alone: she’s clearly having a ball as a preening ugly stepmother, resplendent in a series of outlandish costumes she’s sure are all the rage in London. Her costumes are one of the few successes of the design, which by and large fails to firmly establish the period setting.

Yet The Kissing Dance feels like a paean to a lost England: two weary travellers, stopping at a country tavern, are made to listen to the local legends attached to every hill and dale, until they eventually learn the route to the local squire’s country hall, an establishment turned completely upside down by the Puckish tricks of the locals on All Fool’s Eve. Much comedic chaos ensues, but eventually all is restored, with some beautiful folk song and madrigal arrangements along the way. There’s even a nod to As You Like It in the finale, as the muddled lovers are all smoothed into orderly couples, the romantic gentlemen and the country bumpkins with their like mates. But unlike As You Like It, there’s no resilient queerness underscoring the ritual, no Rosalind in her breeches to return on stage with that sexually questioning epilogue, that final, ambiguous note.

Instead, there’s a finale which is quite uncomplicated in its joy, a triumphant celebration that sends the audience out singing and dancing for days to come. The Kissing Dance is another vindication for The Jermyn Street Theatre’s commitment to staging at least one new musical a year: the best new musical in London since Jet Set Go! launched in the same space two years ago. It’s actually a bumper fortnight for fringe musicals in London. Head over across town, and you’ll travel from Arden to 1920s Moscow. At the Finborough Theatre, Take Note, the team behind Jet Set Go!, have launched the European premiere of Bed & Sofa, a bitter-sweet short musical which won a clutch of Obie Awards and Drama Desk nominations when it first premiered in New York.

Based on a silent film made in Russian in 1927, Bed & Sofa bills itself as “a silent musical”. Obviously, it’s nothing of the kind, but its power does lie in what itleaves unsaid. We learn, through short, clipped musical statements, that Moscow is in a grip of a housing shortage – when the sensitive, intellectual Volodya arrives in Moscow, it thus becomes necessary for him to move in with his more ox-like old army buddy Kolya, and his bored wife, Ludmilla. What happens next should be obvious, but after the first few moves on the adulterer’s chessboard, life for the ménage à trois becomes a lot more complicated.

What’s surprising is how deeply moving this ordinary story becomes. We overhear strained, lyrical snatches of musical dialogue, yet nothing is ever quite explicitly explained. The effect is haunting, although as the piece becomes overly obscure, it becomes difficult to know exactly what is going on. The surreal effect is heightened by pre-recorded announcements from Penelope Keith, as a Moscow radio presenter, punctuating the gentleness of the narrative by provoking gales of laughter from the audience. The real-life cast is equally gripping – Kaisa Hammarlund is deeply sympathetic as a wife confined closely to the house by a man who believes that her primary function is to cook, while Alastair Brookshaw is highly expressive as her seducer.

At only 80 minutes, it’s short and sweet. Where The Kissing-Dance took its cue from a grandiose eighteenth century comedy, the silent film format is deeply embedded in Bed & Sofa, but both are worthy celebrate of the power of stage to absorb and harmonize competing art forms.  Catch them while you can.