Expectation is a killer, and the weight of expectation is never heavier than with new musicals. Couple that with the fact that this is the latest work from such a comedy institution as Victoria Wood and is based on some well-loved sketches, and the weight is almost too much to bear. Add the record ticket prices and it takes on Atlas-like proportions.
So could Acorn Antiques have been anything more than a disappointment? Well, it is easy to forget that while Wood’s early work was grounded in witty songs, the full-blown musical is virgin territory to her. And, unlike The Producers’ Mel Brooks, Wood has not chosen to bring in any collaborators. She has always plotted a lone course, albeit inspired by her close-knit repertory of performers, but here the tactic is her undoing - there is a little bit too much raw undiluted Wood.
The other main problem is her motivation and the question of whether she is embracing the genre or simply attacking it. Because among the standard issue Wood witticisms, her elements of satire, of the in-jokey theatrical kind, put the musical in an queasy no man’s land between affection and disdain. And while her repertory does not disappoint - though Duncan Preston, as Mr Clifford, is oddly sidelined - and there is ample opportunity for Julie Walters to shine as Mrs Overall, the most that this has going for it is their and Wood’s appeal.
The trouble is that she could not quite bring herself to produce a straight, full-length musical. So Act I opens with the original stars of the axed Acorn Antiques show meeting to rehearse a shocking stage version of the soap, re-imagined by Neil Morrissey’s self-important director, as a socio-political piece pitched between Brecht and Mark Ravenhill. The cast revolts before a Lottery win helps take the proper version of the show to the West End.
And so the second half begins, to the palpable delight of the audience, with the show they have come to see - with missed cues, fluffed lines and preposterous plots gloriously intact. It delivers some wonderful set-pieces - namely Mrs Overall’s show-stopper on the benefits of a cup of tea and a slice of cake over a life of excess and Sally Ann Triplett, her grin suitably rictus-like as Miss Berta, with a sweet ballad of unrequited love. And choreographer Stephen Mear does well to stage the jolly dance sequences around the bulky set, designed, almost inevitably, by Lez Brotherson.
Which goes some way to disguise the nagging contradictions at the show’s heart. But the messy preamble of Act I, with director Trevor Nunn seemingly doing the theatrical equivalent of pointing the camera at the action, leaves a bitter taste.
But Wood being Wood there is enough entertainment and wit to keep the faithful happy. And while this will not win her any new fans, in the end, perhaps that is all that should be expected from what is effectively a two-hour skit based on a series of five-minute ones.