Originally published on London Box Office
My flatmate’s mum used to work with Robert Lindsay when he was just starting out as an actor – now he’s best known for playing Ben Harper from the hit TV show My Family. So when I told her I was going to see him in his latest West End role she asked me to say hello from her mum. Of course I didn’t, but I did go along to the Savoy Theatre and stepped back in time for a few hours to experience its latest offering, reminiscent of (and possibly inspired by) the American classic Guys and Dolls. Now I always have mixed opinions about how well musicals set in this era are staged today, having been recently disappointed by Top Hat (Aldwych Theatre) and Singin’ in the Rain (Palace Theatre). But I went along hoping that this show would buck the trend – it did not.
A Lane and Yazbek collaboration (Tony award nominees for both the book and the score), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is adapted from the 1988 film of the same name and follows 2 conmen in competition with each other on the French Riviera. As an experienced and successful hustler, Lawrence Jameson (Lindsay) is more than happy to defend his reputation against the new kid on the block Freddy Benson (Rufus Hound). They go head to head to see who can successfully con money and affection out of American sweetheart Christine Colgate (Katherine Kingsley), but of course not everything goes to plan. Overall the story had good energy and was well balanced by a romantic subplot between Jameson’s sidekick Andre Thibault (John Marquez) and wealthy do-gooder Muriel Eubanks (Samantha Bond) – they really reminded me of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in Cabaret. But I felt the dialogue lacked the extra zing that I was hoping for, it was all a bit plain and vanilla (not unlike the ice cream I was eating at the time).
Vanilla is also a good way of describing the set; Peter McKintosh seemed fixated with the colour beige but did offset this background with brighter costumes. I especially loved the opening sequence; the women looked glamorous in floor length, elegant evening gowns and the men looked pristine in crisp linen suits. I did not however like the costumes in the Latin dance number ‘The More We Dance’; the men wore those currently fashionable coloured trousers that clashed disastrously with the women and gave me a bit of a headache (it might have been brain freeze from the ice cream).
You could not however describe the acting as vanilla and the opening encounter with Lawrence Jameson (Lindsay) set the bar high for the rest of the show. Lindsay oozed panache and charisma and immediately broke the 4th wall to draw the audience in, it was clear that he was no stranger to the stage. His dancing however was old fashioned and reminded me of Bruce Forsyth, which in my book is not a good thing. Lindsay’s overall performance actually sums up my opinion of the whole production pretty well, as every aspect of the show had positives and drawbacks. Benson (Hound) and Thibault (Marquez) both had great physical comedy and a real chemistry with Lindsay, which led to some really funny scenes. On the other hand, neither had the strongest voices – Hound was frequently flat when singing and Marquez had an awful French accent that was taken straight from ‘Allo ‘Allo (and not in a good way). The best performance came from Katherine Kingsley, who was feisty and excitable at first and gradually showed a softer, tender side as the show progressed. Right from her first number, I thought that Kingsley looked and behaved very similarly to Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (also at the Savoy a couple of years ago).
When it came to the songs, the women definitely won the battle of the sexes. The lyrics and melodies themselves were pleasant but forgettable – Yazbek hit the mark with some (‘All About Ruprecht’) but really fell flat with others (‘Love Is My Legs’ was utterly ridiculous). My favourite song however was performed stoically by Samantha Bond, who stood in one spot and fixed the audience with a steely gaze to recount how impossible it was to resist Lawrence Jameson’s charms. Everything about her character at that point was powerful, poised and purposeful. Unfortunately the character of Muriel Eubanks didn’t remain like that for long, quickly becoming much too scatty and needy.
So, for this production, I came away satisfied. But like the small (and overpriced) tub of vanilla ice cream, I looked back on my choice and wanted something a little more exciting. But listening to the audiences’ reaction throughout the production, it was clear that this show will be around for the near future because, like vanilla, it can be enjoyed by everyone.