22nd March, 2014 matinee
Please note that I saw a preview of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Opening night was 2nd April.
With its perfect casting, impressive Art Deco design and diverse score, Tony-Award winning director Jerry Mitchell’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels finally opens in the West End. It has the postmodern humour of The Book of Mormon and the suave style of a classic American book musical, but Scoundrels admirably stands out from other West End musicals.
Based on the 1988 film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, the plot focuses on two competent conmen in the French Riviera who compete to scam a wealthy heiress. We first meet Lawrence (Robert Lindsay), a seasoned swindler who convinces us he has the whole of Southern France in the palm of his hand. But he’s not in it for the money; it’s the game itself that he enjoys. His opening number (revised from the Broadway production) ‘Give Them What They Want’ gives Lindsay a chance to show off Lawrence’s charm with the ladies, his faux bonhomie and ability to take on different guises at the drop of a hat. Speaking of which, I’m not sure if it’s in Lindsay’s contract to have a hat for every theatre role, but he sings, dances and hat manipulates with aplomb. I last saw Lindsay (a fellow East Midlander) at the Derby Theatre in Onassis and he still performs with such vitality that the first number alone evokes the exhilaration that a musical is meant to deliver. There aren’t many performers like Lindsay and you’ll think that he was born for this part.
Of course, the game of deception speaks not only of conning but also of acting itself – and this is why Mitchell’s casting works so well. You have the veteran consummate performer of Lawrence/ Lindsay coupled with the talented newcomer Rufus Hound (playing Freddy). Even the programme notes for Lindsay and Hound indicate their different paths to Scoundrels, but they have great chemistry as this unlikely double act. Lawrence and Freddy jostle, play dirty and can work together brilliantly through several plot turns in order to out-con each other. When Lawrence disguises himself as the Lichtenstein psychiatrist Dr Shuffhausen, he tickles the wheelchair-bound Freddy with a feather and whips his legs with a cane in order to break his act and win their bet of tricking the wealthy Christine Colgate (Katherine Kingsley). It is just one of the moments of hilarity, another being the Ruprecht scene where Lawrence and Freddy work together to convince Jolene that she wouldn’t want to marry Lawrence when the socially challenged Ruprecht (Freddy in disguise) is the third person in the marriage.
Samantha Bond and John Marquez provide an endearing sub plot of Muriel (another woman tricked by Lawrence) and Lawrence’s French aide, Andre. The two fall in love, their language differences being overcome in the very funny and memorable ‘Like Zis/ Like Zat’. Their dance sweeps the whole stage of the beautiful (also Art Deco) Savoy in a nod to classic musicals like Top Hat. The scene is a reminder of the strength of Mitchell’s choreography, which impresses throughout the show with each number receiving well-earned applause. Marquez plays Andre as if he could be hapless and cunning depending on what Lawrence requires of him, with only Muriel bringing him out of his shell. Bond is equally impressive as the fairly gullible woman from the Home Counties and looks like she is having a whale of a time.
One thing which is different about Scoundrels is its self-awareness. It sets up the show’s light heartedness and means we can connect with the two leads as their rotten nature is balanced with a tongue-in-cheek knowingness. Indeed, ‘Give Them What They Want’ couples with the closing ‘Dirty Rotten Number’ to frame the show as a theatrical treat which fits the bill as a musical comedy. As a balcony that Muriel and Andre are leaning on lowers back down under the stage, Muriel remarks ‘Is it me or is this balcony moving?’; the second act opening in the same way that act one closes sparks a ‘Haven’t we already done this bit?’; and there is plenty of involvement of the musical director Richard John. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea and perhaps doesn’t give the show a bold tone that would make it a classic musical, but it certainly is enjoyable. For instance, when Lawrence manages to find himself engaged to the simple country girl from Oklahoma, Jolene, his banter with the MD perhaps goes on a bit too long considering we know it’s part of the plot, however the humour of Lindsay’s panicked dance is heightened by the closeness between the audience and him.
Katherine Kingsley is extremely impressive as the American, seemingly-naïve Christine and gives the show the vocal power that it needs. However, Rufus Hound also packs a punch in ‘Great Big Stuff’ and his talents as a comedian are put to good use keeping the gags in good hands and the physical humour convincingly fresh. I’m sure I saw his first performance in One Man, Two Guvnors and he is certainly proving himself as a great, comedic stage actor. Lizzy Connolly gives entertaining support as the thigh-slapping, enthusiastic Jolene and the ensemble all perform Mitchell’s choreography with sexy, energetic flair. Their work is certainly appreciated.
Some comments on the theatre forums have noted that David Yazbek’s songs are not that memorable but they do the job of keeping the story flowing and I was soon reminded of them during a quick listen on YouTube. The score uses a mix of different styles which blend well together, especially in ‘Son of Great Big Stuff’. Yazbek’s lyrics, though, are certainly catchy, funny and clever as in “The skies are French, these pies are French, those guys are French, these fries are French” in ‘Here I am’. They bring out the sweetness between Andre and Muriel in ‘Like Zis/ Like Zat’ and bring out the weirdness of Ruprecht in ‘All About Ruprecht’. And finally, Peter McKintosh’s designs certainly deserve an award nomination next year. The colourful costumes and ever-surprising set-pieces reflect the wealth and gaiety of Beaumont-Sur-Mer. I agree that the boldness of the design perhaps makes it difficult to place the setting in the present but it carries a brightness that is appealing and joyful.
Whatever people might think of the show, there is no doubt that Mitchell’s production is a five star one simply for its slick execution and fine performances.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Savoy Theatre until 29th November, 2014. I really want this to do well. Also, it would be great to have a London cast recording….