Promises, Promises – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: Neil Simon
Music: Burt Bacharach
Lyrics: Hal David
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Reviewer: Heather Deacon

The ’60s were a lot of fun, what with the sexual revolution and relatively cheap rent in NYC ($86.50 a month, say what?) and nothing has really changed, executive types still play away with their naive secretaries and love still inevitably sucks. This revival of Promises, Promises, a musical based on the 1960 romcom The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine and featuring the gentle tuneage of Burt Bacharach, explores this love-will-always-suck truth by making us believe in it all over again.

tell-us-block_editedThe sweet Gabriel Vick as CC (Chuck) Baxter is not quite Jack Lemmon, but certainly the Paul Rudd of musical theatre, with a childlike aspiration that brings laughter and empathy in equal measure. He carries us through the journey of the show from the joyous (She Likes Basketball) to the reflective (I’ll Never Fall in Love Again), which he duets thoughtfully with Daisy Maywood as the lost lamb that is Fran. Chuck finds that his apartment is just perfect for late night liaisons, with the exception of his own, as the Execs from the insurance company he works for make career  promises upon promises for its use for their extramarital activities.

Fran works in the cafeteria and somehow misses Chuck’s big doe eyes looking at her every day, but what do you expect from a gal who doesn’t know when to leave a slimeball like Sheldrake (Paul Robinson). Robinson has an intensity rarely seen from a musical theatre actor, bringing a quiet demeanor to a cheating git who almost brings sympathy with his powerful rendition of Wanting Things. Only almost, the Turkey Lurkey Girls fawning over him as he sings thwarting any real sympathy, despite a marvellously soulful voice. The choreography and direction uncovers the true deceit and desire throughout the show, making Baxter ever more innocent and Fran’s situation ever more tragic.

There is pure musical joy throughout the show, even from the numerous scumbags, all with their own quirks that probably make them charming at 2am in a New York bar (Where Can You Take A Girl). Speaking of late night lust, Act Two kicks off with Alex Young as Marge showing us what comic timing can bring as she duets with Chuck, who is wiling away his Christmas Eve in a dive bar (A Fact Can Be A Beautiful Thing). The chuckles brought on by Chuck’s asides in Act One erupt into big belly laughs with Marge’s drunken and flamboyant seduction. Young really brought life to an at times samey production.

As with most Southwark Playhouse productions, the space is transformed with a huge (if slightly wobbly) structure hiding Chuck’s apartment, where the scumbags have their fun, and smoothly evolving into a Chinese restaurant, office, and Executive lounge as needs be. Simon Anthony Wells draws from the cold NYC structures to create a set that is unmistakably ’60s and distinctly film noir.

Promises, Promises is a classic musical that ventures into some darker territories, though with the epitome of plotlines that asks just one question. Will these kids ever work it out, get together and live happily ever after? You can bet Burt wouldn’t have it any other way.

Runs until 18 February 2017 | Image: Claire Bilyard

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