Attending the Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, on a day when torrential rain had lashed London and I had personally braved the torrents on Kingsway and Long Acre (getting soaked through, despite my sturdy brolly), I was not generally optimistic about the evening. But the rain held off, and despite slightly chilly temperatures, the show turned out to be a light as a feather delight.
The 1924 Broadway musical is one of those ludicrous shows built around annoying upper crust idiots (whom somehow you actually like, or don’t wish dead at any rate) and their awful ‘problems’, usually involving them not being able to afford a Rolls Royce or a spiffing new aeroplane (i.e. being ‘poor’), various romantic/marital yearnings/complications and convoluted deceptions (an excuse for a particular comic/foreign tune, character or dance more often than not). Lady Be Good doesn’t disappoint, abiding by all the daffy 1920’s musical comedy rules; we have two winsome siblings being kicked out of their mansion for serial unpaid rent, the poor dears having to attend cocktail parties for food (not exactly a gritty life). The brother, Dick Trevor decides to marry for money so he can save his sister from a life of penury, and eschew his real love. Meanwhile, his sister Susie impersonates a Mexican widow to try and earn some money in a dodgy scam so that she can save her brother from having to marry the woman he doesn’t love. Add in a Mexican gangster, a shyster lawyer and an incognito presumed dead millionaire, and you have the plot. I’m not surprising anyone by saying that it ends in a quadruple wedding (in a Shakespeare style plot wrap up in the final scene), but the speed of the marriages is dizzying (same day as the engagement mostly, a brilliantly casual approach to life choices on the part of the contented rich before pre-nups were necessary). But all this is really just an excuse, as with many musicals of the time, for some brilliant toe tapping tunes. So we get ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘Oh Lady, Be Good’, I’d Rather Charleston’, and ‘Just Another Rhumba’, all of which are also great excuses for brilliant dancing (the tunes of which may well be familiar to you already, and quite hard to forget).
I was here in a social capacity, so I didn’t have a pen handy to write down lines that tickled me, but there was something about being double jointed combined with a high kick and flash of knickers that particularly made me laugh. My companions were even pouring wine during the performance, if that had been in an ‘indoor’ theatre I would have disowned them, but in the open air I don’t even mid the eating of sweets.
I feel I should mention The Drowsy Chaperon (a modern pastiche of 1920’s musicals) at this point, a show I disliked. The difference between these musicals is massive; Lady Be Good is not trying to be clever or deliver a brilliant parody, it is being entertaining and tuneful. The utterly false Drowsy Chaperone delivered none of this innocent charm, but emits a self regarding reverence that only the camp musical theatre crowd could adore. Lady Be Good is genuinely light and funny, somehow The Drowsy Chaperone is leaden, pretentious and dumb all at the same time.
Back to Lady Be Good, and the direction by Ian Talbot (in his last year as theatre supremo) is brisk enough, with Bill Dreamer’s perfect flapper choreography really making the show. The black and white set design, made up of a huge piano forming a staircase and sparkly double bass, was not particularly inspired, but suitable enough as a backdrop for the dancing. The cast act with the finesse required to play upper class twits to an open air amphitheatre in wind and rain, with their talents more exuberantly expressed in singing and dancing. Standing out amongst them are Paul Grunert as the highly questionable lawyer Watty Watkins and Giles Taylor as idiot English toff Bertie Bassett, both being rather wonderful comic roles performed with élan (as opposed to the more earnest young siblings).
All in all a lovely evening, if the weather is with you.