views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Babes in Arms
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
22nd July 2016

★★★☆☆

The ensemble of Babes in Arms

Photography © David Ovenden

These days, leave your kids in the car for a couple of minutes whilst you nip out to the shops to buy a pint of milk, and someone will be on the phone to social services faster than you can say child neglect. It's a marked contrast to 1930s Southport as depicted in Babes in Arms, where the majority of the town's parents are vaudevillian actors, who hit the road without their children to put a show. Not only do they not arrange for any responsible adults to act in loco parentis, they don't leave any money or supplies behind. Ignoring the cold hard fact that showbiz hasn't exactly been a lucrative career for his mum and dad, abandoned teen Valentine Lamar (Jack McCann) enlists all the other town's kids in putting on a musical to raise the cash they need to avoid being sent to the work farm by Sheriff Reynolds (Andrew Truluck).

Every leading man needs a leading lady, and Valentine's comes in the form of Billie Smith (Ruth Betteridge), a penniless but pretty hitchhiker who was just passing through when her ride ran out of gas. Val is wildly idealistic, spouting grand philosophies to everyone about freedom and equality that he can't quite follow himself, this imperfect behaviour chipping away at his Disney veneer and making him more credible. Billie is a pragmatic counterpoint to Val, knowingly using her feminine wiles to get what she wants without ever actually compromising herself. McCann and Bettering are both cast well against each other, with an interesting power dynamic.

Although most musicals require you to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, it's safe to say Babes in Arms asks rather more of you than normal in this regard. Rodgers and Hart's book is paper thin and full of tropes, relying heavily on the audience's goodwill. It somehow also manages to both include and breezily gloss over some heavy issues such as racism and politics, whilst throwing in a would be record-breaker French pilot. Pourquoi pas?

Joana Dias' unfussy set leaves plenty of room for Carole Todd to create some energetic choreography, with director Brendan Matthew hamming up the dialogue. Although Matthew brings out the sheer fun of the script, there's only so much he can do to make this musical truly fly. Whilst the result is a good show, it's despite the book rather than because of it. In the hands of anyone but All Star Productions, I'm not sure how much there would be to rave about. This is a company that brings a bit of magic to everything, no matter how problematic.

The large ensemble deliver some solid performances. They do at times struggle to make themselves clearly heard over musical director Aaron Clingham and the rest of his wonderful band (Ruth Whybrow, Maria Rodriguez Reina, Doug Weekes and Janette Williams), making me ponder for probably the first time whether microphones might be a good idea in Ye Olde Rose and Crown. Nonetheless, Betteridge and Beth Bradley's big numbers My Funny Valentine and Johnny One Note prove to be real crowd pleasers, and the company's rendition of Babes in Arms proves to be a bit of an ear worm, helped undoubtedly by the number of people singing it at the same time and thus fighting back against the orchestra.

Babes in Arms is a daft, throwaway revue which will thoroughly entertain. We've seen All Star Productions stage musicals which have stood the test of time better, however this is nonetheless worth seeing. The glorious songs and fancy footwork will charm you into seeing past the weaknesses in the book.

Babes in Arms opened on 20th July and runs until 7th August 2016 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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