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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
9th May 2014

★★★★☆

Adam Pettigrew as J Pierrepont Finch

Photography © David Ovenden

If you head on over to Ye Olde Rose and Crown, for once, you may actually recognise the title of the latest musical to be staged there by resident company All Star Productions. After all, it was only a few years ago that household name Daniel Radcliffe starred in a Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Given the company's fondness for digging out old and obscure material, it's perhaps a surprising choice, but there's nothing wrong with going a bit more mainstream every so often.

Our hero is J Pierrepont Finch (Adam Pettigrew), a young, ambitious man armed with a dazzling smile and a little pocketbook which promises to get him to the top of the career ladder. With no time for romantic dalliances - much to the disappointment of smitten secretary Rosemary (Alyssa Nicol) - Finch sets about trying to win over World Wide Wickets president J B Biggley (Mark Burnbull). Biggley's incompetent, slimy nephew Bud Frump (Josh Wilmott) makes for a worthy workplace nemesis (it's not just comic book heroes who have enemies, every business person has an equal and opposite force). Frump is work-shy, well-connected and determined not to let Finch unlock his full potential.

Pettigew fronts the whole operation with charm, ably assisted by Nicol, but it's Wilmott who steals the show, much in the same way Matthew Ibbotson managed to steal Superman's thunder as Sedgewick in the company's last production here. There are plenty of chuckles throughout, but every so often Wilmott appears on stage and hits us with a line that makes our sides hurt with laughter.

With an accountant, doctor and almost-but-not-quite teacher behind the book (Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), it's easy to see why so much of the corporate environment parodied in this musical is recognisable, even today. Sure, Finch's speedy zero-to-hero rise is very reminiscent of the American dream, but in any big Western business, you will find stressed out workers hovering in the kitchen screeching "If I don't get my coffee break, something inside me dies!" There's just a lot of fun being had - there's a broad appeal, but anyone who has ever been suited and booted for a living will particularly appreciate it.

There's no denying that there are still some suggestions of casual sexism remaining, the show did originally première in the early 60s, but director Dawn Kalani Cowle ensures the tone is light-hearted enough for this not to offend modern sensibilities. Using older material often brings these kind of problems, but Cowle handles it well. Instructional song A Secretary is Not a Toy makes as much fun of the men as it does the women, with some well-choreographed jokes from Brendan Matthew. Whilst Rosemary wistfully declares she is Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm, content to never be put first by a man, there's a clear implication that her workmate Smitty (Geraldine Allen) wouldn't stand for that treatment herself. Assuming she would even cook dinner in the first place, it would probably go straight on her husband's head if he was late home. Rosemary is somewhat traditional wife material, but there are stronger female characters too.

Joana Dias keeps the set design simple with clean lines creating a corporate feel for the fictitious business. With so many moveable parts, the set is easily rearranged, which is especially key in this production because the first half is so much longer than the second, and Cowle doesn't have time to waste on scene changes. There are an ambitious 15 numbers packed into act one.

As always, musical director Aaron Clingham leads the orchestra masterfully - this time Ruth Whybrow on reeds, Greg Sheffield on drums and Gareth Lieske and Adam Storey on guitar and double bass. Some reliable names. Hidden behind Dias's staging, you can see why the musicians perhaps assume they have to overcompensate, but there are a very moments where their accompaniment unfortunately is just too loud for the singing, and some of Frank Loesser's witty lyrics are lost.

How to Succeed in Business is an entertaining romp, but It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman is such a tough act to follow, especially given they're both the same genre. This musical more than holds its own against anything else currently running in London, and it's very much recommended, but All Star Productions have hit even higher standards before. Perhaps it's the uneven acts - the first half does last around two whole hours - or maybe it's because whilst the performers all sing well, the vocal talent doesn't blow us away as it has done in previous shows. There's just a tiny bit of polish missing somewhere.

We've seen better from Clingham and co, but honestly? All Star Productions when they're underperforming are still head and shoulders above most other fringe companies.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened on 6th May and runs until 24th May 2014 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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