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Review: Mame, Salisbury Playhouse
Reviewer: David Cradduck
Images: Pamela Raith
One of the best musicals you’ve never heard of!
The first professional UK revival for 50 years of Jerry Herman’s glitzy musical is enjoying a limited two-venue tour concluding at the relatively intimate setting of Salisbury Playhouse. It may be a small-ish production in comparison with some big West End shows but it packs a powerful punch and is perfect for the Wiltshire Creative setting.
You would be forgiven for not having heard of MAME (especially when not suffixed with the usual title of ‘– The Musical’). Google the word MAME and you are more likely to get pages of information on something called a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator than the Broadway show that earned Angela Lansbury her first Tony award in the mid-60s or the Drury Lane production that ran for 14 months and made Ginger Rogers the highest paid performer in the West End in 1969.
MAME (the musical) is based on Patrick Denis’s ‘Auntie Mame’ 1955 novel from which a play was spawned before the musical version was launched on Broadway. It is set against the backdrop of the dizzy 1920s when New York, like a lot of America, witnessed a post-war recklessness amongst the white, wealthy sector of the community.
Excessive partying, gambling and drinking (helped by Prohibition rather than curbed by it) was the norm for the ‘leisure classes’ before the crash in 1929 which led to nearly two decades of austerity, bankruptcies and hardship for all but the richest of millionaires.
Out of this madcap maelstrom of frenetic partying comes the character of ‘Auntie’ Mame, a fun-loving, stylish, sophisticated woman in her prime, played superbly with theatrical excess by Tracie Bennett who has a list of stage, TV and film credits as long as your arm and her cigarette holder combined.
A sophisticated, amusing, raunchy and honest performance by Bennett provides the centerpiece for the show, around which the plot and the other characters revolve.
Mame is in the middle of one of her all-night parties when the arrival of her 10 year old and recently orphaned nephew Patrick almost stops her in her tracks. But such is her resilience to such important matters that she carries on regardless and young Patrick, far from being given a good, clean US upbringing, learns how to mix Martinis before he has even had some ‘proper’ schooling.
Patrick grows up, of course, and in the second act we see him as a young man establishing his own path to adulthood and the conflicts that that rite of passage sometimes entails.
Young Patrick is played by three different, alternating young actors. At our performance, Harry Cross had that honour and what a talented young man he is too; this is a demanding role not just in acting terms but singing and dancing as well.
Several other principal characters revolve around both Mame the character and Mame the plot: Harriet Thorpe as longtime friend larger-than-life performer Vera is suitably glamorous and puts in a lovely, raunchy performance; Jessie May is absolutely hilarious as Patrick’s nanny, transforming from understated, demure, teetotal bespectacled frump into sexy, sassy beauty in one wave of Mame’s magic wand and a large drink.
She gets most of the best lines, is a clever comedic antidote to the serious class issues kicking off in the sub-plot and for my money she steals the show.
Darren Day, fresh from his frenetic one-man show activities as Smee in Peter Pan in Southampton, puts in an enjoyable performance as wealthy plantation owner Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside who becomes Mame’s beau in a trice and marries her, allowing her to quickly shake off any post-crash blues and to continue living her chosen lifestyle.
His southern drawl sounds convincing to me, but perhaps a true native of Tennessee might be a better judge. All accents, New York, southern or otherwise, all come across as authentic.
Benjamin Wong as Ito, Mame’s faithful manservant, puts in an entertaining performance slightly reminiscent of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel and Peter Seller’s Cato combined. Soo Drouet doubles as amusing Madame Branilslowski and Beauregard’s imposing mother.
The supporting cast is strong and the dancing throughout is superb, showing off tightly choreographed and varied routines, many of them blending seamlessly with dances of that era like the Charlston.
On a small stage where every inch is used, it’s surprising that some of the moves don’t end in collisions (testimony to the precision of the dancers and skill of director and choreographer Nick Winston).
Costumes and lighting are second to none, creating the various atmospheres required for multiple scene changes and settings from Grand Central Station to Mame’sbedroom.
The simple set works well on the whole, allowing the faultless orchestra to be partially visible upstage. Rather annoyingly a black curtain drop allows forbidden glimpses of backstage goings-on, actors waiting for cues and a green emergency exit light.
Although offset by the rather unnecessary and slightly distracting over-use of the smoke machine offstage, the illusion is broken every time the curtain isn’t closed properly. Possibly something to do with adapting the set for a different shaped and size stage, the curtain seems a bit of an afterthought in an otherwise meticulously plan.
It is a shame that this sparkly musical is not better known and has not had more public recognition in the past half century – it really is up there with the great classis Broadway and West End musicals. Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are of the time and brilliant (one tune most people will recognise is the title song, ‘Mame’, which is given a good airing in the Act 1 finale and the odd reprise).
Perhaps this mini-tour from Hope Aria Productions will widen the show’s appeal and lead to more adaptations in the future; it is a musical with a funny, thought provoking (and sometimes serious) backstory. It covers a decade (1928-1938) of huge cultural and economic change in America and class attitudes, some of which brought out the best – and the worst – in people. MAME has the required amount of bling, fluff and glitter to earn the title of ‘musical’ but to date remains a hidden gem it would seem.
MAME runs at the main house at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 25 January. Box office is at www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk, 01722 320333.