First the good news - Nimax Theatres is putting the compulsory restoration levies charged on the sale of each ticket to good, transparent use, and the Duchess Theatre has re-opened with the smartest new loos in town (complete with personal hand basins and dryers even in the cubicles). But the show that marks its return is in the (pre-refurb) toilet.
Clive Rowe, Luke Brady, Lorna Want and David Burt in The Fantasticks at the Duchess Theatre Photo: Dan Tsantilis
The most famous song in Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s 1960 musical is Try to Remember, but audiences at this London revival will be trying their best to soon forget what they’ve seen.
Even the show’s title is a hostage to fortune, for this is a piece that puts the ick into fantastic. The original Off-Broadway production that opened in 1960 - in a tiny downtown theatre, the Sullivan Street Playhouse - ran for a staggering 42 years, and then resumed, or rather was exhumed, four years later for another run in a new venue that’s actually geographically uptown on Broadway itself, where it continues to play today. But longevity - as we know all too well from The Mousetrap over here - is itself no measure of quality or relevance.
There’s a quaint experimentalism that’s very much of its time - it’s as if the Theatre of the Absurd of Ionesco has met a bit of Beckett and had a shotgun marriage with the travelling players of Hamlet putting on the Pyramus and Thisbe story from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two neighbouring teenagers fall in love thanks to a paradoxical plot of their respective dads to drive them into each other’s arms by building a wall between their houses. They consolidate the plan by then staging a fake abduction ballet - in fact billed in the original as a rape ballet, but times are rightly more sensitive now - to enable the boy to rush to the girl’s rescue.
All of this is conducted to the accompaniment of a score of tuneful whimsy, and if the tedious proceedings have any pleasure, it is those songs. They are well performed by a cast that includes a charming Lorna Want - who actually wants for nothing in the talent department - David Burt as her dad and the dashing Hadley Fraser as the show’s narrator. Edward Petherbridge is on hand for his now-standard performance as a baffled, bewildered old-timer, making his entrance and exit through a travelling chest as if he had wandered into the show from Endgame, a recent previous tenant of this theatre.