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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Rags Ryan (Chris Holland) left & Johnny Reno (Jon Paul Hevey) in Burlesque
Photo by Scott Rylander
9 November – 18 December 2011
Framed by a faded red and gold art deco arch, Burlesque, bursts at the seams within the compact space of the Jermyn Street Theatre. It is 1950s’ America at the time of Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts; made all the more threatening by the disembodied interviews, heard intermittently, during the show. ‘When a country goes insane, someone has to make a stand’ so Burlesque stands as a pistol-packing tale of politics, persecution and survival during America’s ‘culture of terror’ - a play on comic and commie…….
In the run-down Palace Theatre, black-listed comedian Johnny Reno (the-total-package Jon-Paul Hevey) juggles his love-life, his comedy partnership and his good name as he tries to do the right thing. Freddie, (the marvellous Linal Haft) tries to raise money to keep the theatre afloat, while the worldly-wise Lula props him up. New recruit Amy (a winsomely wicked Victoria Serra) has her eye on the main chance; while Honey, Georgia, Saul and Rags – the patsy, the fall-guy - try to keep their heads above water.
The patterning in Burlesque is tightly controlled, perhaps too much so at times, as everybody has a story and everybody is thematically paired up. The action is thrown into relief by the precarious political context, represented by the Mister Nice-Guy FBI agent, Bill Henry, deftly played by Alex Bartram. Yet sharpened by the dazzle and glitz ‘for the good of the crowd’ of the Burlesque itself; complete with cheesy, ‘tits n’ ass’ routines and reprise of ‘It Ain’t Betrayal’; and finally Rag’s and Johnny’s straight man/funny man business, which by the end of the evening, is its own bitter/sweet counterpoint.
Shot-through with gags, music-hall routines and whip-crack repartee, largely supplied by Freddie - ‘what are you going to do: tap-dance me to death? - the show trips along at a fair lick, carefully orchestrated by Adam Meggido. Meggido, responsible for direction, book and lyrics with Roy Smiles, offers ‘a cocktail of politics and showbiz’ with an assured line in comedy.
There is much to admire here yet with a larger platform, larger cast and orchestration then Burlesque could be a real winner. Its appeal is universal; and it is especially good to see older actors given the opportunity to play real moments, expertly pulled off by Buster Skeggs’ Lula, rather than characters who are batty, deaf or palsied eccentrics. There are front cloth and backstage scenes, scenes in the dressing rooms, the FBI; scenes which effortlessly drop into song, staged set pieces such as the ‘Luck of The Irish’ or Honey’s final torch-song ‘Love Never Plays Fair’ beautifully judged by Alicia Davies; with sharp choreography (Cressida Carre) including a cheeky, true-blue burlesque routine, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ delivered by Victoria Serra as Amy; and tight musical direction by Michael Bradley. Burlesque’s scope is big.
Add more feather boas than you could shake a stick at, and some fabulous, meticulous costuming by Martin Thomas, and you are in the after-glow of a Damon Runyon world, via Chicago and A Chorus Line in company with the delicious-sounding Honey Hogan, Freddie Le Roy, Saul Sunday and Rags Ryan (a towering performance by Chris Holland).
It’s an old maxim that theatre which reflects itself guarantees interest. It is the ultimate act of deconstruction. Yet coupled with a split American psyche, allowing The House Committee for Un-American Activities such power - the name alone should have sounded alarm bells – then Burlesque comes into its own. For what does the word mean asks Lula, if not to ridicule?
Lula Malha (Buster Skeggs) behind & Freddie Le Roy (Linal Haft) in Burlesque
Photo by Scott Rylander
Jermyn Street Theatre
16b Jermyn Street
Box Office: 020 7287 2875 or www.ticketweb.co.uk
Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm
Saturday & Sunday matinees, 3.30pm
Tickets: £20.00 (£17.50 concessions)
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