Thursday, 7 October 2010

Brilliant 'Bells'

When you examine the 1956 credentials of Bells Are Ringing: book by Comden and Green, score by Jule Styne near the top of his game three years before his impeccable ‘Gypsy’, originally directed by Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Fosse, and whose kooky comedienne star Judy Holliday beat Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews to the Best Actress Tony award, you wonder why on earth it hasn’t been revived much till now.

The jolly, silly plot revolves around phone operator Ella Petersen who can’t help helping her disembodied clients with advice and support, falling in love with a stalled playwright, and at the same time exposing an underworld gang which is exploiting the answering service for illegal gambling. On its slender back, however, director Paul Foster and the talented cast build a series of slick production numbers and a truly engaging romance.

Best of all, in the Judy Holliday role, is the outstanding Anna-Jane Casey. In a red-tinted crop she seems to have absorbed all Carol Burnett’s comedy skills along with the hairstyle and captures the audience’s affection from the get-go such that you’re willing her to get out there and get her man. Her singing is impeccable, too, from the wistful ‘Perfect Relationship’ and powerful ‘I’m Going Back’ to a version of ‘The Party’s Over’ that's so tremulous it could be David Milliband's theme song.

This is a strong dance show for which the Union has cleared its stage to the maximum width and, as so often in fringe venues the choreography’s cleverer and more powerful than in the West End – here in the inventive hands of Alistair David - or perhaps proximity exaggerates it as when 15-year-old Sasi Strallen’s high kicks threaten to take your eye out. The combination of acrobatics and half-staggering dance moves in the drunken party scene exhibits rare technical brilliance.

The ensemble work terrifically hard doubling and trebling roles as well as keeping the scene changes moving briskly and whilst they are typically too young for the parts they’re playing, and some of the cameos are slightly more Arts Ed than West End, it’s worth mentioning Bob Harms, Tama Phethean and particularly Marc Antolin as names to watch. Prompted by a distant memory of his unusual surname, I Googled Tama Phethean and it turns out I went to University with his aunt Ellen and directed her in Coward's 'Hay Fever' in 1973.

As Ella’s love interest, Gary Milner brings tremendous energy to the role of the lazy writer and bravely defers his character’s warmth to the last moment possible, making for a far more credible romance when it happens. Corinna Powlesland, excellent as Sue the spinsterish owner of the answering service, looks disturbingly like Princess Margaret but dying to burst into song and dance given the slightest encouragement, even watching her move a table whilst her feet ache to cha-cha is wonderful.

It’s a small theatre, and some performances are already sold out, so book now. Even if it transfers to the West End which is highly likely, you’ll kick yourself if you missed it in all its charming intimacy at the Union.

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