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How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Southwark Playhouse, Borough)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 23rd May 2023)

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre have a reputation for reviving musicals, taking a fresh look at gender casting and finding new angles for problematic issues of racism and misogyny. Mostly, it works very well because they consider the entire show – refining the difficult scenes to create an overall vision.

Here at the Southwark Playhouse, director Georgie Rankcom, in a programme note, appears to be thinking along the same lines. The problem is that they do not appear to have chosen either the right show to attempt to transform, nor realised to remove that material which defeats entirely their concept.

Thus this light, fun satirical musical comedy lands like a brick. The monkey had never seen it before, and was greatly disappointed at this introduction to a clearly pretty great show it can now imagine on a main stage.

Window washer J.Pierrepont Finch (that’s F.I.N.C.H.) uses a self-help book, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (voiced authoritatively in a recording by Michelle Visage) to work their way up via a series of contrived coincidences and manoeuvres from corporate post-room to boardroom in the space of weeks.

There are big production numbers, “Company Way” and “Brotherhood Of Man,” comedy fun in “Coffee Break” and “Paris Original” with a real sense of tension and peril as Finch grasps for each rung of the career ladder.

There are delicious sub-plots with great potential for high farce as our hero researches, schemes and eschews love in pursuit of the prize. The skewering of nepotism and dreariness of office life are ripely written for entertainment, but Rankcom somehow misses every opportunity.

The fault lies in asking the audience to accept the relaxation of gender-specific casting while retaining the original 1960s moralities writers Mead, Losser, Burrows, Weinstock and Gilbert set out to challenge in the first place.

Put another way, if you are going to tell us, rightly, that “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” you need to have presented us with the problem to begin with, not have solved it already. A confused audience cannot relax, much less laugh when scared that it could be perceived as disagreeing with the message – despite wholeheartedly supporting it.

Directors like Timothy Sheader know this and would almost certainly have cut or remoulded thornier moments to fit. For example, an ongoing joke about a “dumb glamour girl secretary” (Annie Aitken as Hedy Larue – a performance brighter than her character) undermines this production’s entire integrity.

As Finch, Gabrielle Friedman is at least an engaging leading actor with a strong voice. Their facial expressions as they make another quick save or experience a bolt of good fortune are both amusing and endearing. Much-vaunted honesty may be questionable, but lovable they are.

Unrequited love Rosemary Pilkington (Allie Daniel) would agree. Questionable visual humour aside, Daniel works hard to win the audience against what sounded to the monkey like a slight tussle with the musical arrangements. 

Wrestling with the crowded direction, Verity Power as sidekick Smitty evidently should have been a comedy highlight in a different production. Power is under-used here, a performer to watch.

Tracie Bennett as J.B. Biggley, boss of the firm, is the finest artiste on the stage. Knitter and Groundhog, her scenes save the show on numerous occasions where the edge is taken from interacting with scheming nephew Bud Frump (Elliot Gooch) and important minion Milton Gatch (Milo McCarthy). 

The duo’s roles are the biggest victims of the new concept, as the show depends on the idea of a cheating male corporate hierarchy. By flattening it in the name of equality, there is no means for the key middle-managers to make the necessary impact to land properly the satire on which it relies for tension and humour.

At least there is a real ladder left to climb. Sophia Pardon’s set around this neon landmark is fun, even if one desk was worryingly flimsy as the cast put their weight on it.

With Lucia Sanchez Roldan knowing where spotlights should fall and how to animate with neon brightness, choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento is able to inject a little zest with the limited movement, mostly, as befits the corporate environment, dancing around in circles. 

With enough space for this, why Rankcom sees fit to stage some important sequences up an aisle out of sight of half the audience is another little mystery not worth solving.

Heavy on the percussion, Natalie Pound’s musical direction gives us a beat Joshua Robins’s sound design keeps audible in the difficult Southwark Playhouse environment.

A strong musical deserves re-examination and even update a little (as the recent Broadway revival did). Sadly, this production succeeds mostly in trying too hard, the changes tedious rather than perceptive.

The main message the authors intended is that the workers survive despite, rather than because of, the managers. Ironically, this production ends up providing key evidence and proof of that theory.

2 stars.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography. Used by kind permission.

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