An old Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash musical has been revived - and it's a scream
In August 2001, The King's Head in London's Islington staged a wonderful production of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash musical One Touch Of Venus. This tiny venue can barely hold 100 people, and has been packed out for performances prior to the show transferring to the West End.
The book is by Nash and S. J. Perelman, who wrote screenplays for the likes of The Marx Brothers, the tone is one of high camp and low farce, as the huge cast of twenty players sing, joke and pun their way through two hours of musical comedy. The multiple roles played by some actors only add to the fun, as they quick-change both themselves and the set throughout the performance.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around millionaire art collector Whitelaw Savory (Peter Sand), who has just acquired a statue of Venus in the Far East. In a series of circumstances too ridiculous to contemplate, she is unwittingly brought to life by Rodney Hatch (Michael Gyngell), a barber with whom she immediately falls in love, despite his engagement to the shrill and screechy Gloria (Gina Murray). In the ensuing magic and misunderstandings, all is happily resolved - eventually.
The work was written in 1943, but it's set in 1939, so there are plenty of period frocks to enjoy. The humour too, reflects the times, with references to art that must have sounded fresh and contemporary at the time - but still manage to raise a laugh now. "I haven't seen you this happy since Picasso moved to France" says Molly Grant (Giselle Wolf), Savory's assistant. When planning their cosy home, Rodney tells Venus (Kim Medcalf) that there will be plenty of space for the kids to play. "Better make sure we're near a lake" she says, "With me you might get swans!"
There are so many moments to savour. The opening of second act with its musical re-enactment of the Crippen murder is one of the best. Savory Whitelaw is trying to get Rodney to confess to killing the disappeared Gloria - but only succeeds in getting Venus to owning up.
The songs are also a joy, with many a singalong chorus dispensing life-changing advice. "The Trouble With Women", we are informed, is at the vital moment they are always thinking of something else. This gem is delivered in a jailhouse, where Rodney is being held on suspicion of killing Gloria. The whole scene has the air of a Marx Brothers farce played out by Monty Python characters, with Mark White playing the inspector as Michael Palin.
As Zuvetti, the man from the East trying to recover the statue, Mark White joins in the suggestions on how to be wealthy (one way, apparently is to be very, very rich) with the advice "At the end you'll be left with your memoirs, and boy what memoirs them was!" This song, "Very Very Very" must be one of the few containing the word "Bosphorus" - and finding a rhyme for it as well.
All the performances are good, with Peter Land leading the line well as Whitelaw. Kim Medcalf makes her professional debut as a striking Venus. But everyone has a hard time when they're up against MArk White in his various roles, as he steals every scene - although he's certainly helped by having some of the best lines too.
The intention is to transfer the production to the West End. The effort is being organised by The King's Head Theatre, and is well worth support. It's an intelligent and witty show that would attract both tourists and return visits simply to hear the bits missed through laughing so much at the previous joke. But nothing is certain in life, and even less so in theatre, so get along while you can for a guaranteed good night out.
© 2001 Andrew Winton.
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