A Damsel In Distress – Review

Summer Strallen & Richard Fleeshman in A Damsel In Distress. Images Johan Persson
Summer Strallen & Richard Fleeshman in A Damsel In Distress. Images Johan Persson

You know you’re in PG Wodehouse’s uniquely oddball world when a scatter-brained earl sings to his roses and uses the chat-up line: “Would you like to see my pigs?” That’s a bally corker from the off.

Wodehouse came up with the ultimate pan-American fairy story when he wrote A Damsel In Distress.

Having his very good chums George and Ira Gershwin write some topping tunes to turn it into a musical was just inspired. Where else would you here a cracking good song called I’m A Poached Egg?

Damsel In Distress

This delightful bit of fluff has been lovingly adapted for Chichester Festival Theatre by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson who have played around with both the original novel and the play to come up with a super night’s entertainment.

The original book was first published in 1919 and it went on to be both a silent movie and a musical starring Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine as well as a hugely successful play.

But that was nearly 80 years ago. Does it stand the test of time? As a huge fan of Wodehouse I was as happy as the Empress in her sty at Blandings to see what Sams & Hudson had done.

What we have is a cute, schmaltzy, feelgood, funny musical. Richard Fleeshman, sporting a rather rakish pencil moustache, (now there’s a trend to encourage. He looks terribly engaging, like a young Errol Flynn) plays troubled Broadway song-writer George Bevan who has brought his latest hit, Kitty In The City to the West End.

But he hates the show’s superficiality and is intent on re-writing it to make it more meaningful.

Sitting at the stage door he wistfully tells chorus-girl, Billie Dore, that he wants something more in life – Camelot, Lady Godiva (I’m sure he didn’t really mean her), and to rescue a damsel in distress from a castle.

Right on cue his dream comes true when the lovely Maud ( the immensely talented Summer Strallen), a terribly well spoken English gal from the upper classes, runs into the theatre to escape the clutches of her dragon of an aunt.

And the rest, as they say in movies, is history. Our dashing clean cut American hero saves the day and so begins a game of cat and mouse as he pursues and woos his reluctant fair maiden.

A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

In-between there is lashings of humour. We meet Nicholas Farrell’s wonderfully dotty Lord Marshmoreton who is under the thumb of his Gorgon of a sister (a terrifying turn by sweet little Isla Blair in stout tweed and sporting a real Borzoi).

She runs Totleigh Towers while the widowed earl, who once courted a chorus girl, contends himself with his roses and pigs.

Lady Caroline is bent on getting her wet step-son, Reggy Byng (from the Bertie Wooster stable) to marry the fair Maud but both Reggy and Maud have other plans. Romance is also in the air for Billie.

Downstairs, Keggs the Butler (Desmond Barrit in fine form) spouts bad Shakespeare and leads a servants’ rebellion against the dragon while his niece, Alice, plots her own future.

There are some jolly nice turns from this large ensemble cast. Richard Dempsey’s endearing Reggy brings the house down with his Poached Egg song while French chef, Pierre (David Roberts) proves a masterchef at the tango.

It would have been nice to hear more of Sally Ann Triplett’s knockout voice as Billie (and perhaps a little less of Nicholas Farrell who, great actor that he is, looked uncomfortable singing and dancing.)

There are a lot of songs in the production, including some memorable numbers like Fidgety Feet, A Foggy Day, French Pastry Walk and Feeling I’m Falling, plus some snatches of tap numbers, but director and choreographer Rob Ashford has wisely used them to enhance scenes rather than be big production numbers that detract from the story.

Fleeshman has matured into a top musical theatre star with a fine voice, buckets of charisma and the assurance of a leading man. He and the high-kicking Summer make a sparkling couple.

A Damsel In Distress runs until June 27.

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