As Christmas shopping stops being ‘something you’ll do online’ and starts becoming a real and present horror, the Menier has revived a 1963 musical that puts a bowing, scraping and singing cast of store clerks at your service.
You can see why, especially in director Matthew White’s gorgeously giftwrapped production, set in designer Paul Farnsworth’s retro fantasia of pastels and gilt flourishes. And it’s well-stocked with endlessly inventive, pun-tastic lyrics and a memorable score, written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock – the dreamteam behind ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. But this is a rather frothier outlet for their talents.
It’s set in a perfume shop in 1930s Hungary where seasoned clerk Georg (Mark Umbers) is swapping anonymous romantic letters with new girl Amalia (a daffily simpering Scarlett Strallen), after she answered his ad in a newspaper column. Sounds familiar? It probably is. Miklos Laszlo’s play has also been adapted into Judy Garland vehicle ‘In the Good Ol’ Summertime’ and the Meg Ryan movie ‘You’ve Got Mail’.
You can imagine Julie Andrews pulling it all off with aplomb (she was originally slated to create the role on Broadway) and there’s a touch of Andrews-ish mumsiness to Strallen. Meanwhile Umbers is doing an excellent Rex Harrison impersonation that delivers on comedy but not on chemistry. They’re an unlikely enough couple, and Harnick and Bock’s songs don’t do much to bring things to a sizzle. As their romance finally gets on track, their scenes of stilted flirting are interspersed with a big group number about the stresses of Christmas shopping.
Underneath the tissue paper, there’s a tougher, spikier story just spiking through. Ditzy blonde femme fatale (yes, two stereotypes at once) Ilona, brilliantly played by Katherine Kingsley, has her heart elaborately stomped on. And kindly shop owner Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis in twinkly eyed mode) is driven to depths of despair that are glossed over by the book’s relentless jollity.
If its central pair of lovers are more like good friends, you can see why. This musical gets all its complexity from Harnick and Bock’s artful, witty score - if it’s real romance you’re shopping for, might I suggest ‘You’ve Got Mail’