Friday, 20 January 2017

Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse


Photo credit: Ollie Rosenblatt (Senbla)

In 2015-2016 I had the distinct pleasure of watching the incredible Close To You at the Criterion Theatre – several times. I was familiar with Burt Bacharach's extensive back catalogue, of course, but I did not connect to it on an emotional level until I saw this beautiful and mesmerising show. So when I heard that Promises, Promises, which also features Bacharach's music, would get a London revival I was very excited to hear his music in a theatre setting again.

Based on the 1960s movie The Apartment, Promises, Promises tells the story of Chuck Baxter, a junior employee in a large insurance company in New York City. Chuck is ambitious and keen to get into his boss' good books, so when a senior executive one day asks to use Chuck's centrally located apartment so his 'sick female friend' can have a lie down, Chuck doesn't hesitate to say yes.

However, the one time offer turns into a weekly appointment and several other senior executives join in, creating a rotating schedule. While Chuck becomes annoyed at having to leave his apartment all the time, he's blinded by the promises of good references, so he can swiftly move up in the company. And at work, he's also distracted by his colleague Fran. He wants nothing more than for her to notice him, but she might not be the person he thinks she is.

Reminiscent of classics such as She Loves Me and Merrily We Roll Along, Promises, Promises is a sweet but rather unassuming romantic comedy with a dash of slapstick thrown in. The book by Neil Simon is nice but dated, and even the gentle melodies by Burt Bacharach, with lyrics by Hal David, feel painfully old-fashioned in the setting.  

Running at just under 3 hours, the first half in particular felt far too long and wasn't able to keep my attention. And that was despite one of the songs listed in the programme (I Say a Little Prayer) not even being performed. Add to that a story that felt very much of its time, reflection of lights distracting from the stage at times, and a set malfunction whereby part wouldn't come down to hide an apartment when the scene was taking place in an office, and it all just felt a bit clunky and outdated.

That isn't to say that there was nothing to enjoy about this revival. Leads Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maewood, as Chuck and Fran respectively, were charming and their moments together were a delight to watch, especially when they were duetting. And Alex Young's scene as bar pick-up Marge at the start of the second act was a show-stealing moment that added a touch of spunk to an otherwise mediocre show.

Music-wise there were also a few stand-out performances, even if the lyrics did not always align with the story. A House is Not a Home, the act 1 closure sung by Fran which was added for the Broadway revival in 2010, was spine-tingling in its quietness, and so was the Chuck and Fran duet I'll Never Fall in Love Again. On the opposite end of the scale was the powerful Whoever You Are (I Love You), a performance that had the audience mesmerised, and the joyfully delightful A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing

Unfortunately there wasn't quite enough charm to make Promises, Promises a stand out among so many other shows currently treading the boards in London. It begs the question whether a musical warrants a straight-up revival just because it was a success at its time. If edited down significantly and updated for 21st century audiences then I believe this could be a sparkling asset to the London theatre scene, but as it stands I found it to be just average and not very memorable.  




Promises, Promises is playing at Southwark Playhouse in London until 18 February 2017. You can book your tickets here.




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