The Spitfire Grill

Theatre, Musicals
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Flop film makes unwelcome transition to stage musical

‘Unabashedly manipulative’ and ‘preposterous – that’s how the great Roger Ebert described Lee David Zlotoff’s original film version of ‘The Spitfire Grill’, and he wasn’t half wrong. This is a rather small but puffed-up tale, with a massive bleeding heart at its centre. It’s a story of redemption and rebirth, in which an ex-convict moves to a small town in Wisconsin and helps the locals escape their self-made shackles. James Valcq and Fred Alley’s 2001 musical version – here receiving its UK professional premiere – certainly isn’t a stinker, but it’s cheesy as heck.

The set is effectively a black hole with a few glimmers of light contained within; a gentle reminder of the prison that our convict, Percy Talbot, has escaped from and the refuge she longs for. Talbot winds up in Gilead, a ‘ghost town’ where everybody knows everyone’s names and secrets. The local folk are initially suspicious of Percy (Belinda Wollaston), but it isn’t long before she’s working at The Spitfire Grill, cooking up a storm and warming a few hearts along the way.

There are some dark truths rattling about in ‘The Spitfire Grill’ but director Alastair Knights delicately hops over the murky stuff. Percy has been through the wringer but Wollaston, who is such a warm performer, comes across as a rather light-hearted soul. A local lad threatens his wife, but the danger never feels real, and there’s one heck of an ugly plot-twist involving café owner Hannah (Hilary Harwood) that’s so outlandish that it hardly lands at all.

Wollaston uses every last ounce of energy to light up numbers like ‘Shine’, which blazes with hopeful optimism. But all of Valcq’s songs, which are lent some nice texture by an accordion and guitar, feel overdone. With a story this slight – a convict sets a small town free – these weighty emotional numbers threaten to crush ‘The Spitfire Grill’ to smithereens.

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