Tag Archives: Benji Sperring

“How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit musical doesn’t get a London airing very often, so this revival, from director Benji Sperring, is an exciting chance to see the show. As you would expect from the creator of Guys and Dolls, Loesser’s smart score has a satisfying complexity, served well by Ben Ferguson’s musical direction and Wilton’s acoustics. The story is a neat idea, too – following the corporate career rise of a former window cleaner, J Pierrepont Finch, aided only by guile and a self-help book. While many of the jokes are laboured, a committed cast gives its very best.

Sperring’s actors adopt an exaggerated style that’s apt, fun, and makes light of the outmoded working environment and sexual politics on offer. The cast gets a lot from camping it up, especially the lead, Marc Pickering – a charismatic comedian with a strong voice. Also benefitting are Matthew Whitby and Daniel Graham as Finch’s dastardly colleagues, accompanied by Richard Emerson, who multi-tasks a shocking number different roles… at least that’s one thing that reflects current workplaces.

The mannered treatment might have been pushed further; not so much with the performances but rather Mike Lees’ set and costume design. Maybe even more drastic measures are needed – especially given the cringing sexism of the piece. Despite valiant efforts from all the actresses, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the delivery, there are too many uncomfortable moments. Hannah Grover sounds sweet as Finch’s love interest, but this character makes Miss Adelaide look like Germaine Greer. Her sidekick is more interesting. Played by Geri Allen with a voice perfect for this music, she almost manages to make you forget that she is singing about marriage being a woman’s ultimate goal.

Of course, Sperring doesn’t take any of the show seriously. His production’s silliness builds pace and humour (despite a lot of moving office furniture) while Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets funnier throughout. The actors are unfailing in their efforts but it’s a shame a more ruthless approach wasn’t taken. The germ of how to deal with the piece’s problems is clear to all – but more of an aggressive takeover is needed to make this business succeed.

Until 22 April 2017

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“The Toxic Avenger” at the Southwark Playhouse

B-movie inspired musicals are an established genre, from Rocky Horror shows and Little Shops to recent examples such as Bat Boy at this very venue. Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s 2008 work, based on Lloyd Kaufman’s film, shares the schlocky kitsch appeal and knowing references that fans love. And there’s a super cynical side that suits contemporary musicals, with a take on government and environmental issues – Urinetown springs to mind – ensuring wide comedy appeal.

There’s a superhero angle that provides laughs, as the town nerd gains great powers (applause for nifty costume changes throughout) and sets about tackling pollution in the town of Tromaville, New Jersey. Battling corruption and prejudice with a love interest thrown in, there’s plenty to parody, and The Toxic Avenger does parody very well indeed.

The script is a good deal stronger than the score, which lacks direction and possesses conviction only when it comes to comedy. But the lyrics are frequently inspired – geranium rhymes with cranium, for example – and the jokes are good. And the pace is impressive; this show is literally a laugh a minute.

The cast is accomplished and creates an infectious sense of fun. Mark Anderson takes the lead, deserving acclaim, with a superb voice. Hannah Grover is the blind librarian Sarah, uninterested in a romance until Toxie’s transformation; her comic skills make the most of jokes about disability and sexiness (a little too obvious a ploy to make this an ‘adult’ affair). Lizzii Hills impresses even more, playing both mother and town mayor, scoring a big hit in a number that is a duet between the two. The power behind all three voices skates over some bland musical moments.

The stars of the show are Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels, who play all the other roles – doctors, scientists, policemen, thugs and Sarah’s girlfriends (condragulations (sic) on that one). Running around like mad, Pickering and Samuels’ standard of singing never drops, the folksy title number is delivered brilliantly, their interaction with the audience great and, under Benji Sperring’s strict direction, each gag itself is never overplayed.

However, the major drive in The Toxic Avenger is in the dismantling the conventions of musicals themselves and this does become repetitious. There’s a Les Mis reference and a Phantom gag. Everyone loves a show with in-jokes (think Forbidden Broadway) and Sperring ensures the humour feel fresh, spontaneous even. But it’s a shame The Toxic Avenger doesn’t go that little bit further. There’s a suggestion it might, with a darker turn of events. Instead, we fall back on the fact it has a small cast and one joke that builds superbly. But it fails to surprise.

Until 21 May 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk