Strike Up the Band – Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London

Music and lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin

Book: George S Kaufman

Director: Mark Glesser

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

George S Kaufman’s satirical book for the musical Strike Up the Band takes us into the realms of utter fantasy. The writer’s proposition is that America in 1927, a country of political corruption, tax fraud, protectionist tariffs and deindustrialisation, is led into war against barely-armed opponents (Switzerland) by a blustering business tycoon. How preposterous this all seems in 2019.

Ultra-patriotic Horace J Fletcher (Richard Emerson) is the bullish boss of a cheese manufacturing giant, delighted when his government imposes 30% import tariffs on cheese and incensed when the Swiss raise objections, not even paying the full postage for their letter of complaint. It has to mean war. In true Swiftian style, Kaufman packs his script with plot and detail, putting a weighty burden on what could have been just a flimsy musical and the strain shows, particularly between songs.

This 1927 show represents American musical theatre in its infancy, a huge leap backwards from, say, Hamilton, and it is fascinating to assess how things have evolved. The show would need a much bigger makeover than director Mark Giesser is able to give it here to match it up to modern standards, but its appeal owes much to its dated feel. The art of blending book and musical sequences together seamlessly is not quite mastered, leading to awkward links and songs that do not seem to fit. However, when those songs are by George and Ira Gershwin, a lot can be overlooked.

The show has standard numbers, such as the title song, The Man I Love and I’ve Got a Crush on You, but it is a particular pleasure to have the opportunity to appreciate lesser-known Gershwin pieces and to hear them sung by fresh talent in the style of a bygone age, long before they started to put on full-blown musicals above pubs. A seven-piece band under musical director Bobby Goulder works well, tucked in behind screens, supporting a company of ten.

Heading for the conflict in Switzerland, there is a hissable baddie (David Francis), a mysterious interloper (Nicholas McBride) and a presidential aide (Robert Finlayson). “What a lovely place for a war” declares socialite Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) as she surveys the Alps. Romantic interest is provided by Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) and rebellious reporter Jim (Paul Biggin), along with Mrs Draper’s daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) and cheese factory worker Timothy (Adam Scott Pringle). The mission seems an expensive folly, but Fletcher reassures his troops “I can make Switzerland pay for the cost of this war”, strangely echoing a similar, more recent promise.

It matters little that the show is, yes, cheesy or that Giesser’s production is a little rough around the edges. It all adds to the charm of this joyful nonsense in a revival that strikes all the right notes.

Runs until 31 March 2019 | Image: Andreas Lambis

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