What’s New Pussycat – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer - James Garrington

Book: Joe DiPietro

Based on the Henry Fielding novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Director: Luke Sheppard

From the first notes of the opening number through to the finale, this world premiere of What’s New Pussycat fizzes with energy.

Loosely based on the Henry Fielding novel, it tells the story of Tom, a young man who was taken in by Lord Allworthy having been left on the doorstep as a baby. We learn of Tom’s alienation from his adoptive family, his banishment to London, and his subsequent adventures there.

Jukebox musicals can be tricky to get right, and Joe DiPietro has worked wonders in transforming Fielding’s long comic novel into something that sits nicely on the stage, transformed in time to the sixties, and incorporating the music of Tom Jones. The decision has been made by the writer and director for the piece to not be taken too seriously, so the sometimes awkward twists and convoluted dialogue to make the songs fit instead create moments of comedy when someone is fed a line which allows them to launch into a song in reply. The script throughout is a comic delight, the stilted 18th century feel of the dialogue in Somerset contrasting with London’s 1960s feel – all enhanced by some wonderfully inventive costumes designed by Janet Bird, from the semi-period feel of the green, green grass of rural Somerset to the glorious palette of colours and designs of swinging sixties London. Jon Bausor’s set creates a stylised interpretation of the wide-open spaces of Somerset contrasting with the garishly bright shades of London, allowing the action to continue unimpeded. The choreography by Arlene Phillips sparkles and adds to the joy of the piece.

The music provides another well-judged spread of familiar and new. Many people will know a lot of the songs but with new and old arrangements, gender-swapping of numbers and the sheer variety of styles from choral to country through to power ballad there’s always something to surprise and delight the audience. Dominic Andersen does a good job as Tom Jones, though maybe more comfortable in his vocals than his dialogue, and he is well-supported by the rest of the cast. Bronté Barbé as feisty fashion designer Mary Western, shoe-horning her way into her niche on Carnaby Street, and Kelly Price gives us some powerful vocals as wealthy socialite and seductress Lady Bellaston. Ashley Campbell is a charmingly comic Mr Partridge, in his quest to capture the heart of the elusive Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (Rebekah Hinds). Lemuel Knights is a wonderfully comic presence in various roles throughout, with the high point surely being his Big Mickey launching into Delilah.

With a decided pantomime feel, deep and meaningful it clearly isn’t – but who comes to see a jukebox musical expecting high drama? As an example of its genre, it works well and it met with a highly appreciative audience on the opening night.

Runs until 14 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Sparkles and fizzes with energy

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