42nd Street – Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London

Reviewer: David Guest

Writers: Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble

Music: Harry Warren

Lyrics: Al Dubin

Director: John Plews

When the huge recent production of the musical 42nd Street was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it boasted a cast of more than 50, claiming to be the largest company ever in the West End on the biggest stage. Less than a year later Ovation is bravely producing the first fringe production of the show Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village with a cast of just 13 – and it is a bold blockbuster.

How on earth the company manages it may be a mystery never to be solved this side of eternity, but the venue’s end of year productions simply get bigger and better, defying every single expectation. With 42nd Street the small traverse stage might seem to be the most unlikely setting for one of the biggest and most popular Broadway musicals, but director John Plews and a uniformly hard-working ensemble still create a stunning spectacle.

By using Simon Adkins as choreographer, who was the resident choreographer for the Drury Lane run, the company cannily utilises the large-scale experience for the small-scale production. There are some knowing references to the bigger production with such nods and winks as the curtain rising on six pairs of tapping feet instead of 50 and the American coin podiums for the We’re In the Money number but all in all this version isn’t trying to copy any predecessors, rather it gives it a heart and soul of its own.

In this small space there is no escape: every routine and every step have to be perfect as the performers are being watched back and front by an audience only inches away. Not only does it work, but it dazzles, with no holds barred musical numbers, amazingly swift costume changes and big efforts from everyone involved not to be daunted by the constraints.

The story is the stuff on which all performing dreams are based: a naive and untested Peggy Sawyer (a wonderful and bright Kate-Anne Fenton) hopes to try out for the chorus line in a new show, Pretty Lady, ends up in the chorus line by a fluke and finally lands the leading role when the star breaks an ankle.

Every number is breathtaking, whether the more intimate (such as About a Quarter to Nine) or the brash showbiz of Dames, Lullaby of Broadway and the title number. Emily Bestow’s clever and captivating design means the stage is well used, with an adaptable theatre marquee at one end and a raised stage (concealing surprises) at the other, and the costumes are both period chic and lavishly sparkling.

Alex Wadham plays the notorious and demanding director Julian Marsh with panache, making the iconic line “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” the demand of a caring professional. Tamson Dowsett is in glorious form as Dorothy Brock, the Prima Donna past her best, giving her a glint of genuine compassion in spite of the steely demeanour, while Rory Shafford is perfect as the all-singing, all-dancing (and acrobatic) leading man in the show, Billy Lawlor.

Charlie Burt and Tom Lowe find plenty of humour in their roles as the co-writers of the show, Ethan Tanner is an impressive choreographer putting everyone through their paces, and Christopher Hewitt has some fun with Dorothy’s Texan sugar daddy Abner. Christopher Foley is a likeable Pat Denning, Dorothy’s ex-Vaudeville partner, and there’s pleasing support from Samantha Noël, Helen Rose and Jessica Wright as the chorus kids who befriend, support and encourage Peggy.

Musical director John Reddel and the five-piece band sit on a platform barely seen behind raised portions of set but making their presence felt fabulously in hit number after hit number. Sam Waddington’s lighting is almost a character in its own right, coming into its own for the Shadow Waltz number but also assisting in rapid scene changes.

Of course in the small theatre above a Highgate pub, you are not seeing 42nd Street in all its pizzazz, the sort of musical extravaganza you would expect to find on Broadway or in the West End. But this magical pared-down version is a masterpiece in its own right, deserving applause and awards for its skilful, intrepid and triumphant audacity.

Runs until January 26 2020 

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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