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‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’ review

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 2 out of 5 stars
The Great British Bake Off Musical, Noel Coward Theatre, 2023
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

A rich aroma of pointlessness wafts off this musical homage to the TV show

Where most art forms strive for novelty, West End theatre’s appetite for artistic cannibalism is pretty much limitless, as it hungrily raids pop culture in search of sweet, sweet box office gold. You’ve got verbatim Wag drama in ‘Rooney v Vardy’. Netflix-inspired excitement in forthcoming play ‘Stranger Things: The First Shadow’. And now, a chance to relive the thrills and spills of a much-loved reality telly show, in the form of ‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’. As the poster for ABBA jukebox musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ says, ‘You already know you're gonna love it!’.

I mean, baking-based innuendo and musical theatre numbers, what's not to like, right?
In fact, even if you love its main ingredients, you might not be fully satisfied by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s show, which arrives in the West End after starting life in Cheltenham last year.
This musical resides deep in the murkiest dells of Uncanny Valley: everything about it feels faintly familiar, leaving you playing guessing games about what's been nicked from where. Some bits are oh-so straightforward. ‘Phil Hollinghurst’ is a barely-veiled Paul Hollywood – helpfully, seasoned West End actor John Owen-Jones has the dark eyebrows and silver hair to make that one obvious. ‘Pam Lee’ is self-evidently Prue Leith – here, Haydn Gwynne sports authentically horrible statement necklaces, and makes fabulous work of her old-school Broadway-style song and dance numbers (at one point, she even turns a cartwheel).
These charismatic, familiar judges are a highlight. But the contestants are more clumsily written, emerging in a Frankenstein's monster mishmash of details lifted from real-life contestants. For example, spirited grandma Babs (Claire Moore) hates Phil, referring to him as ‘the male judge’ just as Series 5 winner Nancy Birtwhistle did – so it feels a bit tactless towards the real-life Nancy to give this character a song-and-dance number where she reveals that instead of despising him, she's actually sexually obsessed with him.

At other points, there are attempts at pathos that fall flat. Stylish Italian contestant Francesca (Cat Sandison) spends the whole show lamenting that she doesn't have a bun in the oven, using a range of baking puns. Is the audience meant to be giggling, or mourning her childless state? It's really not clear, but it’s disappointing that a whole character is reduced to her reproductive potential. The character of Syrian-born student Hassan (Aharon Rayner) is an excuse for some very, very light contemplation of the ‘British’ part of ‘The Great British Bake Off’: he and Francesca have a conversation about national identity that's as insubstantial as a day-old vanilla slice. Especially when situated within a show that childishly uses ‘foreign’ pastry names for comic effect. And the main plotline is hopelessly mawkish: bereaved carer Gemma (Charlotte Wakefield) and also bereaved single dad Ben (Damian Humbley) gently fall for each other as they perfect their macaron technique, their tragic backstories making them worthy of romantic fulfilment.  

The thing that makes real-life episodes of ‘Bake Off’ enjoyable is the spontaneity, creativity and strangeness of ordinary people. You can't predict mishaps like Series 4's ‘wrong custard’ debacle, or invent characters like real-life whimsical baking witch Helena (Series 8). But this musical plods rather than innovates, showing its characters’ half-familiar journeys as they progress from their first technical challenge to the garden party grand final. The grinding predictability of it all pounded my brain into a soft, gooey substance: the kind of thing you could use to fill a pavlova, in a pinch.

This show was made with the full cooperation of the telly show's producers, Love Productions, which explains why it's reluctant to act as more as a musical theatre victory lap for an existing franchise: Alice Power's design comes complete with duck-egg blue workstations and the obligatory bunting. There’s only the lightest of gestures made towards the actually interesting ideas this series touches on – like the sacrifices people make to be on reality tv and the way it impacts them afterwards. Or the way that minority contestants feel responsible for serving up their cultures, making them palatable to judges who've never heard of ‘yuzu’. The tone might be relentlessly sweet, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. 
Written by
Alice Saville


£17.75-£77. Runs 2hr 5min
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