‘Ruthless! The Musical’ – the high-camp in-joke of a show which is playing at The Arts until 23rd June – originally opened off-Broadway on March 13th 1992.
That’s twenty-six years ago. Or about seventy-five in ‘gay years’…
Which is just one of the many problems that this undoubtedly witty and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious musical has.
Times were different then. Very different. Combination therapy was still years away, and the spectre of HIV/AIDS still loomed large over a population decimated by the 80’s killer.
People needed superficial escapist nonsense, and all the better to have it peppered, if not completely composed of, a series of nerdy in-jokes about the musical theatre or, better yet, the strong women of Hollywood’s golden era. The Bette’s, the Joan’s…the Shirley Temple’s…
But that was then. Now, almost two generations later, I wonder if gay men (and let’s cut the crap here, this show is not only created by, but aimed at gay men) could actually care less about most of the movies referenced in this show, let alone have seen them. Hell, I’m nudging fifty and a card-carrying member of the target audience, and most of them flew straight over my head.
Still, it is what it is, and there are some redeeming features. Principally the cast of six (with the voice of a seventh…) who are what lift this laboured and dated material from being a fairly pointless evening in the theatre, to just about diverting enough.
The show revolves around young Tina Denmark (alternating cast, but we were lucky enough to have the simply unbelievably good Anya Evans who doesn’t so much appear as occupy the stage like it was built around her. This girl has star quality, and it’ll be interesting to see how her career builds), a rather intense Shirley Temple-esque child whose big dream is to appear as the lead in her school musical.
Tina’s mother, Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca making an extremely assured West End Debut which I hope will lead to somebody utilising her undoubted talents in a better role…) is Mrs Middle America, wondering what to do about Tina until an agent knocks on her door in the form of Sylvia St Croix (Jason Gardiner in a series of lovely frocks…). There’s the under-utilised Harriet Thorpe as bibulous teacher Myrna Thorn, and the indispensible Tracie Bennett chewing the set as Tina’s grandmother, Lita Encore, who gets the only break-out song from the show, ironically, titled ‘I Hate Musicals’. And the cast is rounded off by Lara Denning both as the target of Tina’s ire in the play-within-a-play, ‘Pippi Longstocking’ (I had to look it up…) and act Two’s ‘Eve’ (more of those darn film references…).
But…and it’s a big but. The two-dimensional characters have absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. You could have told me the title was ‘Bitch-Fight’, and I think I’d probably have believed you. And was it just me, or did the whole thing come across as just a bit…overwhelmingly misogynistic.
The set is good, the cast is well-dressed, and the small band under Gareth Valentine is excellent, though there were a few balance issues with the singers from my seat in Row B.
All in all this is a show which might have gone down a hoot with the drunken office party crowd at Christmas who just want gags, and to be entertained between clocking off and hitting The Hippodrome. As a regular theatre goer though I think there are plenty of other shows I’d spend my ‘hard-earned’ on before I’d spend it on this, excellent cast notwithstanding.
- Book & Lyrics: Joel Paley
- Music: Marvin Laird
- Director: Richard Fitch
- Cast includes: Jason Gardiner, Kim Maresca, Tracie Bennett, Harriet Thorpe, Lara Denning, (and one of) Anya Evans, Fifi Bloomsbury-Khier, Charlotte Breen, or Lucy Simmonds
- Arts Theatre, London
- Until 23rd June 2018