Culture Critic Ruth Horsburgh reviews a stunning and thought-provoking production of Private Peaceful, Michael Morpurgo's bestselling novel.Written by Ruth Horsburgh on 15th October 2017
Review: ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ at the New Alexandra Theatre
Culture's Tatiana Zhelezniakova is thoroughly entertained by this classic show, performed at the New Alexandra Theatre
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a classic, as I’m told. Originally a movie that came out in 1967, it featured Julie Andrews in the title role – a tough act to follow for anyone, in this case Joanne Clifton (formerly on Strictly Come Dancing). The story recounts the adventures of Millie Dillmount, who arrives in New York from Kansas, and takes up rooms in a hotel secretly fronting as a white slavery ring ran by Mrs Meers (we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore). Millie’s ambition revolves around marrying her boss to fund a luxurious life, a goal impeded by a complicated love interest.
“a bright musical palette redolent of Looney Tunes, a sparkling Great Gatsby set and dubious 1920s feminism
This was the extent of my knowledge of the musical before going to see it, and I consciously kept it that way. For someone who enjoys musicals as much as I do, it’s rare to have a clean slate going into a fairly famous production with no expectations whatsoever. What I was met with was a bright musical palette redolent of Looney Tunes, a sparkling Great Gatsby set and dubious 1920s feminism – apparently, a strong independent woman can indeed leave behind a small home town… to marry rich in New York City, instead. Millie’s character growth throughout the musical is essentially the allowance that, actually, you should marry for love, not money. One step at a time, I guess.
The show took a while to get going, while various plotlines were being set up, but the first act had its redeeming features in ensemble numbers and Sam Barrett’s wonderfully performed solo song (Barrett plays Millie’s love interest, Jimmy Smith) and wonderful use of the quite simple set. I definitely preferred the second half, though maybe more absurd, it definitely had more energy and comedy, making the musical more than just a singing-dancing combo.
“All club and speakeasy scenes were a joy to sit through
Something I definitely cannot fault is the choreography and the dancing skill of the cast – Clifton’s past as a trained dancer is evident, and featured styles range from Charleston to Tango, with impeccable ensemble support and inventive incorporation of dancing into the storyline. The director Racky Plews is also the choreographer, which explains the dance-centric format of the show, though his focus does seem to rest on the dancing part of his role. I particularly enjoyed the incorporation of tap dancing as sound effects for the typing machines in the firm where Millie gets a position. All club and speakeasy scenes were a joy to sit through, too. The beautiful costumes added to the shimmering effect of many of the dances and lit up the stage.
“Clifton's Millie was a cute, flouncy, frank country girl
Clifton was a satisfactory Millie – a cute, flouncy, frank country girl, though at times the acting seemed slightly over the top. And while her voice was perfectly lovely, she was outshone by cast members such as Sam Barrett and Katherine Glover (Miss Dorothy). A voice I’m unlikely to forget is that of Jenny Fitzpatrick, starring as the celebrated singer Muzzy – I was captivated within seconds of her starting her first song, and was in love with everything about her singing, from melodic riffs to powerful belted notes.
Considering a big part of the publicity for the show was that the cast included EastEnders’ Michelle Collins, I felt fairly disappointed in her acting style. Ironically, she plays a con actress who now runs a white slavery ring in New York, while pretending to be an ‘Oriental’ hotel-owner. Beyond the questionable Chinese-accented English, there was little acting on show, with many of lines being shouted for effect (even in songs), which tired pretty quickly.
I was definitely unsure about the comical so-called ‘Chinese’ imitation – there’s only so many times you can say ‘ah, the sixties!’ before it just becomes uncomfortable. However, I did like the great addition of the reprise of one ‘Not For The Life Of Me’ in Chinese with English subtitles projected for the audience, sung by Ching Ho and Bun Foo (Damian Buhagiar and Andy Yau) – Mrs Meers’ kronies involved in the kidnapping subplot.
“Some of the most remarkable scenes were those that featured wonderful comedic acting by the actors, such as the ‘I’m Falling In Love With Someone’ flawlessly performed by Mr Graydon and Miss Dorothy
The music numbers were enjoyable, though I find a feature of the 1920s musical style is a great similarity between songs, making few really stand out. The most remarkable were those that featured wonderful comedic acting by the actors, such as the ‘I’m Falling In Love With Someone’ flawlessly performed by Mr Graydon and Miss Dorothy (Graham MacDuff and Katherine Glover). Graham MacDuff was generally fantastic, with a particularly entertaining imitation of intoxication (despite its prohibited state at that time). Hats off as well to MacDuff and Clifton for flawless articulation of one the fastest musical songs I’ve heard (‘The Speed Test’). The music enthusiast in me also loved the inserts of classical pieces into the band score, such as a run from the Nutcracker.
Overall, Thoroughly Modern Millie didn’t fail to entertain, and the cast was very talented and is to be congratulated on a wonderful show. The ending had a great unexpected twist, which I hardly expected in a ‘classic’ musical. And, perhaps, the flair for the overdramatics can be forgiven. After all, it makes for good musical theatre.