WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?
The REP, Birmingham, Friday 29th October, 2021
A jukebox musical? A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones? A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones with a plot inspired by Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749?
Oh, go on then.
It turns out to be a consummate example of the jukebox musical genre. Writer Joe DiPietro takes the bare bones of Fielding’s book, transposing the action to 1960s London — the show’s aesthetic blends elements from both periods, and it works beautifully, to create a vibrant, post-modern experience that is a whole lot of fun.
In the lead as Tom Jones (the hero from the book, not the singer) is the snake-hipped, angel-voiced Dominic Andersen, who is absolutely perfect. Those rich vocals soar and his charisma never wanes. At one point, due to plot reasons, he is stripped down to his underwear (but he keeps his hat on) and I am reminded of his turn as Rocky Horror a few years back. Kudos to the casting director! Andersen seems born for this role. His ‘It’s Not Unusual’ gets the heart racing, and ‘I Who Have Nothing’ is stunning.
Tom’s love interest, Mary Western, is played by Bronté Barbé — don’t let her diminutive frame fool you; she possesses a belter of a voice, ideally suited to the melodramatic ballads of Tom Jones (the singer not the hero of the book). Mary is an independent young woman,
There’s a comic subplot (even though the main plot is comic enough) involving Tom’s former teacher, Mr Partridge (Ashley Campbell) and ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’ (Rebekah Hinds), both of whom are delightful. There is a touch of conflict stirred up by Tom’s rival for Mary, William Blifil (a supremely snobby Harry Kershaw), while Melanie Walters’s Mrs Western is good value as the acquisitive matchmaker. These characters epitomise the clash of cultures in the world of this show: marriage as a transaction/sex as a pastime. Julius D’Silva’s kindly Lord Allworthy speaks up for love as the guiding factor. D’Silva imbues his two-dimensional part with warmth, and is not without his surprises.
Bringing the glamour is the fabulous Kelly Price as Lady Bellaston, a kind of Kim Cattrall cougar figure with designs on Tom. Price gets to wear all the best outfits, including a plastic wedding dress that has to be seen to be believed. Janet Bird’s costumes go all out to evoke the period settings, and her budget must have been generous. The iconic fashions keep coming!
Special mention of Lemuel Knights as Big Mickey. His ‘Delilah’ brings the house down in a show-stopping moment when the song is staged as a psychotic prison ballet. Which seems like an appropriate time to mention the choreography by Arlene Phillips, no less. She works the cast hard — the dancing hardly seems to stop, and its slick, of the period, and a delight. The energy pours off the stage throughout this incredible production.
Luke Sheppard directs with brio, emphasising the staginess of the enterprise. At one point, he has a couple of ‘stagehands’ come on to help create special effects for a train journey — I would have liked to see more of this kind of thing throughout. Similarly, the chorus of three girls (think Little Shop of Horrors) come and go, fading from the forefront (but always fabulously dressed!) The proposal scene is a riot of overblown kitsch; I can barely drink it all in.
It all builds to Fielding’s resolution of laughably convenient revelations, and while some might accuse the show of being a victory of style over substance, I think the meatiness of the songs adds depth to the stock characters, and the sexual politics are handled in a fun way.
An uplifting, energising piece of feelgood fun, this show deserves a long run in the West End. The songs don’t feel shoehorned in, the design is gorgeous, and the exuberant, talented ensemble impresses. The nine-piece band, under the musical direction of Josh Sood, is absolutely phenomenal.
The next jukebox musical to come down the pike has a tough act to follow.