The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was the poshest person you could ever meet who also claimed to be a Cockney Sparrer. Any show, programme, book or film that had a whiff of the East End about it (or even better, the West End) and she’d be there like a shot. Thus it was that she and I went to see the original production of this revised version of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre 33 years ago, gasp. It made a star of Emma Thompson, and confirmed Robert Lindsay as the second-best song and dance man in Britain (after Michael Crawford). The current Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with assorted members of her family, saw a revival in Milton Keynes in 2006, which was more notable for the supporting cast of Dillie Keane as the Duchess, the late Trevor Bannister as Sir John, and Sylvester McCoy as a splendid Parchester. And now the Lambeth Walk is back on the elegantly middle-class streets (avenues?) of Chichester, Oi!
Me and My Girl is a pure feelgood show, that plays upon the age-old themes of rags to riches and the class divide; the common as muck hero lording it over the beautifully-bred gentry. Think Penelope Keith’s Margo versus Richard Briers’ Tom, Charlie Drake persistently aggravating Henry McGee, or Eliza Doolittle taking revenge on Henry Higgins. Higgins even fulfils a remote role in this story, and I’m sure you can guess what it is! Bill Snibson, wisecracking costermonger of the parish of Lambeth, is revealed to be the new Earl of Hareford, heir to a magnificent estate and fortune, all because of some irregular hows-your-father committed by the 13th Earl. But there is a condition; the new heir has to be considered to be a fit and proper person to assume the title; and Bill is, to coin a phrase, as rough as guts. Can Bill convince the Duchess, Sir John and their entourage that he and his girl Sally fit into high society? Does he even want to? Or is he a permanent fixture, South of the River? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!
Few creative masters can put together an exuberant, crowd-pleasing musical like the dream team of Daniel Evans (director), Lez Brotherston (design) and Alistair David (choreography). It worked in Sheffield, with their productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes, and Show Boat, and it’s still working in Chichester with this superb production. Mr Brotherston’s set opens up like a 3-D Advent Calendar, with opaque windows barely concealing partygoers inside; open a door and you get lovely glimpses of priceless tapestries beyond the back of the stage. Noblesse Oblige is the Hareford family motto; and Mr Brotherston does it proud. The costumes and props suggest immaculate taste in preference to creature comforts; Hareford Hall was never going to be a comfy and cosy sort of place, was it? Tim Mitchell’s lighting compliments the set perfectly and gives extra depth to some of the big choreographed numbers – The Lambeth Walk looks particularly beguiling. And Gareth Valentine’s orchestra never has a dull moment with a constant range of great tunes and fantastic arrangements; with the top of Mr Valentine’s head peeping out from a cut out triangle in the stage floor, I kept on hoping that the dancers don’t put a foot wrong and land up on top of him. Not as much as Mr Valentine does, I expect.
The original book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber was revised by a young Stephen Fry (whatever happened to him?) back in the 1980s and still comes across as fresh and cheeky, with some puntastic lines for Bill to offend the dignified ears of the gentry. Noel Gay’s music still sounds sweet and tuneful. Not only the famous Lambeth Walk, and the title song Me and My Girl, but also the quirky fun of You Would if You Could, Take it on the Chin, and Parchester’s irrepressible The Family Solicitor. If you’ve only ever thought of Leaning on a Lamppost as a George Formby comedy number, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is as a romantic ballad. And to cap it all, there’s the terrific silliness of The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Removed from the running order, for some reason, is the delicately funny and sad If Only You Had Cared For Me, performed by the Duchess and Sir John; it’s a perfect little song that gives us an insight into what their lives could have been like, if only one of them had had the courage to say something. I say: reinstate it!
Popular comic actor Matt Lucas plays Bill Snibson, and he absolutely looks the part. Garishly bedecked in a loud checked suit – all colour and no taste, the complete opposite of the Harefords – he’s quite nifty on his feet given he’s a slightly chunkier chap, and there’s an unexpectedly endearing nature to his vocal tone. He bats out the cockney patter like a regular at the Elephant and Castle and his comic timing is excellent. Oddly, he stumbled over a couple of his lines earlier on and never stopped referring back to it throughout the rest of the show; I sense he was less at ease about his little faux pas than the rest of us were; we’d forgiven him and forgotten about it ages ago.
Very good as he was, what his performance lacked for me was a little extra depth in the emotions. I know it’s just a silly and fluffy musical, but these are real people in real predicaments. You never felt the physical and mental anguish of Bill’s being deliberately separated from Sally. His voice never betrayed that doubtful uncertainty of being a fish out of water. All his emotions and reactions were essentially superficial; a little too comic-book and not sufficiently heartfelt for my liking. I found myself wondering what Robert Lindsay was doing that evening. I felt that slight superficiality also extended to his Sally, the wonderful Alex Young, whom we have seen so many times and is always a delight. True, she sang the lovely Once You Lose Your Heart with a beautiful sense of tragedy, and she masterminded the stage invasion that is the start of The Lambeth Walk. But I felt there was less chemistry when she was actually singing alongside Mr Lucas. By the way, her transformation from Lambeth Sally to the refined potential Lady Hareford was immaculately realised.
The true star of the evening was Caroline Quentin who gives a huge performance – vocally, comedically, and even choreographically. Perfectly treading that fine line between a Christine Hamilton-style battle-axe and being a kindly matriarch with a twinkle in her eye and a heart of gold, Ms Quentin convincingly shows throughout how, for the sake of tradition, she desperately wants Bill to succeed as the new Earl, because That’s How Things Are Done. She effortlessly slides in to the comic set pieces, such as helping Bill practise meeting grand dignitaries at his party; she throws herself into the Lambeth Walk, so much so that she could become the Pearly Queen of Tunbridge Wells. It’s a brilliant performance throughout. Clive Rowe, too, has a fine old time as Sir John; a perfect comedy foil to Mr Lucas whilst being a supportive arm for Ms Quentin.
Dominic Marsh is excellent as Gerald; not quite like one of Ray Alan’s Lord Charles’ Silly Arses so he remains a credible character, joyfully leading us through The Sun Has Got His Hat On, and entertainingly reuniting with the excellent and frightful Lady Jackie (Siubhan Harrison) with the most effective kiss ever planted on woman’s lips. And there’s a frolicsomely fun performance from Jennie Dale as Parchester, who finds refuge from the dryness of a legal career through the medium of song and dance. I’ve not seen Parchester played by a woman before, but there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be. If anything, I’d liked to have seen Messrs Evans and David allow Ms Dale even more free rein to cavort all over the stage. Having occasionally to repress her irrepressibility was rather sad!
Last Saturday night’s show was pretty much sold out; and these final two weeks of the run are looking fairly cramped too. A terrific production that would certainly suit one of these hugely successful Chichester/West End transfers. This one will have you travelling home afterwards, beaming from ear to ear. Oi!
Production photos by Johan Persson