I Do! I Do! – Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London

Book and Lyrics: Tom Jones

Music: Harvey Schmidt

Director: Joseph Hodges

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

When reviving a show about marital relationships that originated in the 1960s, it’s worth considering whether the sexual politics at work have anything to say fifty years later. In the case of I Do! I Do!, that remains an open question.

Created by the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, whose earlier The Fantasticks went on to become the longest running musical ever with a 42-year run, I Do! I Do! is altogether a much simpler affair: a single couple, charting the ups and downs of their lives together, starting with their wedding day.

As we join the couple on their first evening together, the roots of Jones’s good humour begin to shine through. Gemma Maclean’s Agnes and Ben Morris’s Michael have a sweet, tentative relationship as they broach their sexual inexperience, which segues cleanly into a time jump in which Agnes becomes pregnant.

It is here that the portrayal of men and women starts to become hackneyed, as Michael starts to experience sympathetic labour pains and demands his heavily pregnant wife attends to him. The trope of the unsympathetic, narcissistic husband and the put-upon but practical wife has been done better, and to death, in sitcoms from the 1950s onwards, so Jones’s approach feels over-familiar while adding nothing.

Jones and Schmidt’s songs contain plenty of humour, though – but many are founded upon a continually reductive view of married relationships. Michael, a romantic novelist, lauds his place as the family breadwinner, and bemoans his wife’s spending habits. As the couple being to argue – she calls his approach to writing “dull”, at a point where the audience could threaten to think the same of the whole play, while he nitpicks over her housekeeping skills.

Eventually, Michael admits to having an affair with a younger woman – and, accompanied by a roomful of eye-rolls of familiarity, of course blames his wife for driving him to cheat. That’s one aspect of relationships that still feels sadly contemporary.

Director Joseph Hodges removes some aspects of the show’s more problematic elements in the original production, Michael physically assaults his wife his to prevent her from leaving, resulting in her being convinced that she does, in fact, love him and want to stay. While that troubling plot point has rightfully gone, it does mean that Act I ends in a massive fissure between the pair – but at the start of Act II, the couple are back together with no further explanation.

The time jumps mean that the second act’s songs become more contemplative, as the older Agnes and Michael begin to worry about the empty nest as their children leave home. Maclean, in particular, gets to shine in What Is a Woman?, as she considers her family role – her refusal to be compartmentalised as a housewife being the only nod to 1960s emerging social mores, let alone 21st Century ones.

Both Maclean and Morris suffer, though, from the decision to amplify their voices, which removes the intimacy one needs for a show of this type to work. With the musical accompaniment being provided by a solitary piano (from ever-dependable musical director Henry Brennan), unamplified voices would have allowed the singers’ tones to sound more natural.

And in a show whose creaking sexual politics are distancing enough in their own right, one really needs to feel more engaged with the characters. Unfortunately, despite the cast’s best efforts, I Do! I Do! remains a relic from history.

Continues until 16 November.

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