17th March, 2018, matinee
“She’s assisting his brains out”.
Although it has taken over 10 years for Young Frankenstein (2007; based on the 1974 movie) to get to London, this production directed by Susan Stroman seems to have garnered mostly positive reviews. I’ve no doubt that Mel Brooks’ movies, with their winning formulae and old school Hollywood élan, may well be enduringly appealing. And the hit 2001 stage production of The Producers (starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans in London in 2004) remains one of those productions that I’d love to go back in time to see. But based on this production alone, my first full encounter with Mel Brooks’ work, I have to say that if Brooks is a comedy genius then I’m Michael Billington. And sorry for the clickbait!
We start in New York with the acclaimed Professor Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen in an effort to distance himself from the lobotomising legacy of his famous grandfather) delivering an all singing, all dancing paean to the brain. It’s not the most sophisticated of opening scenes, but it nicely does the job of setting up Frankenstein as a likeable, respected, and charismatic, yet serious, man. This is immediately followed by the arrival of a strained expositional letter that summons him to Transylvania to take care of his deceased grandfather’s affairs. But he doesn’t leave before singing a pointless duet with his fiancée on the dockside called ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’. Whether this is to establish his lifestyle in New York as stuck in some sort of puritanical ice age as opposed to the sexual awakening that welcomes him in Transylvania, or simply to give Dianne Pilkington something to do in act one, it sits oddly in the show.
Once there, along with the help of his grandfather’s assistants Igor and Frau Blücher, he discovers a way to put proof to the myth of bringing the dead back to life. This is much to the nearby villagers’ dismay who are still scared from the last time a monster stormed the village. The plot is an enjoyable romp, and some audience members seemed to be in hysterics, but something seemed to be amiss. I’m not being priggish about the musical’s sexual politics. If you don’t think too much about why Transylvania is sex mad and instead go with the flow, it is easy to lose yourself in Brooks’ nympho world. This includes Frankenstein and Inga getting aroused from riding a wagon of hay, and Lesley Joseph fondly reminiscing how the Frankenstein Sr. used to ‘plough her until the cows came home’! But can tit jokes really get more than a titter? In asking how this show fares in the time of the #MeToo campaign, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for this style of humour or this type of irreverent show, simply that in Young Frankenstein the humour could be funnier and the show could be better. At times, it felt like I was filling in the gaps with my own jokes.
The show isn’t without its moments. Patrick Clancy’s solo ‘Someone’ is very funny, where he endures spending a couple of minutes with the monster (Nic Greenshields) after so longing for a companion. Dianne Pilkington plays Frederick’s shrill fiancée to great effect, and her song ‘Deep Love’ is one of the few that succeeds because it mixes a po-faced musical theatre ballad with lyrics filled with innuendo. And the highlight has to be the monster’s and Frederick’s duet of ‘Putting on the Ritz’ followed by a magically designed silhouetted dance routine.
At this performance, Josh Wilmott led the show superbly as Frederick Frankenstein. He brought a youthful naivety and ambition to Frankenstein, and occasionally evoked Gene Wilder as well as making the role his own. Lesley Joseph brings the house down as Frau, and I think she has earned her Olivier nod for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical. Cory English (no stranger to Mel Brooks’ musicals) does a fine job as Igor. It’s a role written for a comedian and I can’t help but imagine what Ross Noble would’ve done with his improvisations. At this performance, Gemma Scholes was on as Inga (although I spent the entire performance thinking it was Summer Strallen). The role is essentially collateral, but Scholes fully brought out her humour and was a memorable presence.
Veteran American director Susan Stroman packs the production with old school Broadway pizazz, including her own impressive choreography and Beowulf Boritt’s set of painted backdrops and pyrotechnic sparks. However, Brooks’ songs are rarely memorable apart from when he borrows from old Broadway and Hollywood musical standards. It’s a strong concept to merge the worlds of golden age Broadway with Hammer Horror B-Movies and there are promising bits, but this doesn’t quite come alive.
Young Frankenstein is currently booking at the Garrick Theatre until 29th September, 2018.
|The company of Young Frankenstein. Photo: Manuel Harlan.|