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New Theatre, Oxford

Thoroughly Modern Millie
3.0Reviewer's Rating

Thoroughly Modern Millie was a very successful film that got very mixed reviews. It succeeded mainly on the charms of Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, and a turn by Beatrice Lillie, frankly. Essentially it is and was a deliberately silly, send-up comedy that plays with lots of old conventions of stage and cinema (especially silent films as it is set in the 1920s) and has no depth at all. It is simple, snickering satire. There is no sub-text. There is not much connection to real life. It is more connected to Chu Chin Chow or Fu Man Chu. It is less profound than The Third Man or The Maltese Falcon and is really more like an old fashioned silent comedy than anything else. Innocent young things are stalked by Chinese white slavers and foiled by our heroine and her pals. If it weren’t so silly it could be downright offensive. But, as long as you are not looking for anything too deep, and you are not feeling too politically correct about China or the Triad, it is actually rather fun. You just have to accept the “given”.

The tour of the show that was based on the film lives up to your lowest tastes and expectations in a completely charming and entertaining way. Pauline Kael said of the film: “The players work so hard that one begins to suffer for them and finally, to feel numb.” Well, there are moments when you might wish there were more connection to real life, but not many. In fact, the show is pretty enjoyable and the audience was clearly delighted by it. The pacing is good and so is the choreography (both are by the multi-talented Racky Plews), the sets are serviceable (based on the original designs but cut down for the touring, I guess) and suggest the 1920s and the era of Prohibition and Speak Easies well enough. It would be a stronger show if it had a better score. Except for the song that comes from the film, nothing sticks in the mind or makes you want to go out humming; it is too predictable and old-fashioned a musical comedy score; but the numbers work in their contexts and the choreography is both energetic and engaging.

I very much liked the changes that were made to the original script. Mrs Meers, the part originated in the film by Bea Lillie, is now a Christmas Panto drag act broadly and brashly played by Lucas Rush; thus enhancing the sense that really this is a kind of pantomime. He knows how to do “arch”. Muzzy Van Hossmere, the part first played by the inimitable Carol Channing fresh from her great success on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, has now been turned into a torch singer so that there are excuses for more songs, for Speakeasy dives, and she is excellently and smokily played by Nicola Blackman. I liked Michael Colbourne as Jimmy Smith and would love to see him in a more demanding part. He moves like a real dancer, has a strong and interesting voice, and did some marvellous things when he was supposed to be standing on a ledge 23 stories up from Broadway. He was in excellent voice the night I attended, as was Laura Ellis as Miss Dorothy Brown sending up Mary Pickford, if you believe that wig. I also warmed to Richard Meek as Trevor Graydon, and he did a wonderful silent-movie style drunk scene. I also appreciated the new ending for his character.

The star of the show is, without a demur, Hayley Tamaddon playing Millie. She is onstage most of the time. She has several numbers that she storms. She works well as part of the ensemble and stands out when she needs to. You might not remember the songs themselves too well, but you will remember the way she moves, the inflections she gives the numbers. She sings powerfully, she dances delightfully, and she mugs outrageously just as she ought. She is also more tart than the original conception of Millie, tougher; and she could clearly do a turn in Funny Girl, for example, as Fanny Brice.

So if you want a spiffy, entertaining, send-up kind of evening in the theatre, this is for you. The performances given by everyone in the cast are energetic, cheerful and uniformly terrific. I just wish the score were a bit stronger, though it is certainly viable and I give full marks to Chris Peake for his musical direction.

  • Musical
  • Book by Richard Henry Morris and Dick Scanlan
  • Directed and Choreographed by Racky Plews
  • New Music by Jeanine Tesori
  • Directed and Choreographed by Racky Plews
  • Cast includes: Hayley Tamaddon, Lucas Rush, Michael Colbourne, Richard Meek, Nicola Blackman, Lisa Bridge
  • New Theatre, Oxford
  • Until 5 May and then touring until 26 May 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper came to the UK to study at Oxford and stayed, captivated by the culture and history of the welcoming and tolerant society of Britain. He founded the magazine Opera Now. He was a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting and a member of the team that started Classic FM on which he broadcast shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature.

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