Can-Can! – Union Theatre, London

Adaptor and Lyricist: Phil Willmott

Composers: Jacques Offenbach and his contemporaries

Director: Phil Setren

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

After Mythic and Hadestown London may have had enough of the Orpheus myth for now, so it is welcome news that this new musical entertainment borrows the overture, but not the plot, from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. It is the music most famously associated with the Can-Can, the dance that scandalised late 19th Century French society and, here, it heralds the arrival of a touch of Parisian gaiety to the world under the railway tracks near Waterloo Station.

Colourful costumes, high kicks and frilly knickers feature strongly in the show, Adam Haigh’s choreography proving to be its highlight. There are also strong segments of classical ballet and ballroom, but, dancing aside, the rest is a mix of chuckles and cringes, not necessarily in equal measures. Creator Phil Willmott bases his plot very loosely on Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells, an affectionate comedy set in the world of theatre.

Christian (Damjan Mrackovich) is a toff, son of joyless banker Monsieur Bontoux (Willmott), who strongly disapproves of his dalliance with showgirl Jane (Kathy Peacock). Jane is part of the troupe at the Orpheus Theatre in Paris, along with the likes of La Goulue, a drag act (PK Taylor) and Pujol, a “fartiste” (Mark Garfield). Also hanging around are musician Offenbach, aka “Offy” (Sam Woods) and, clutching his sketchpad, an unusually tall Toulouse Lautrec (Jordan Nesbitt).

When Bontoux buys up the Orpheus and gets the troupe kicked out (“I was a tour-de-force and now I’m forced to tour” moans one of them), Christian becomes an actor on the London stage, parted from his love. A great aunt in the Bontoux family (Corinna Marlowe, who could have stepped straight out of an Oscar Wilde play) arrives to help, but it seems that only “Offy” can bring the pair back together, casting both in his new operetta (guess which one).

The show has fair helpings of music by “Offy”, a bit of Lehar, but, mostly, the songs are standards from Victorian Music Hall. These are simple and familiar tunes, yet some seem to provide too big a challenge for a few singers in this company. The music is arranged by Richard Baker, with musical director Rosa Lennox on piano, accordion and clarinet and Marlowe on cello.

Everything gets terribly confused. Characters with distinctly English traits are supposedly French and there is no consistency of style anywhere. Sometimes we see an operetta, then a string of Music Hall turns and, with a dastardly villain (Bontoux) and a flamboyant dame equivalent (La Goulue), the show becomes a pantomime.

Phil Setren’s production stutters when the dancing stops, often embarrassing when it sets out to be amusing and risible when it takes itself seriously. In summary, this is a poorly conceived patchwork of mismatching ideas. Many talented people are involved, but all of them can can and should should do better.

Runs until 9 March 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Poorly conceived

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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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