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Thoroughly Modern Millie review at Milton Keynes Theatre – ‘a sense of discomfort’

Joanne Clifton in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Milton Keynes Theatre. Photo: Darren Bell
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Thoroughly Modern Millie is a retro-fitted hybrid of a musical. It’s based on a 1967 movie musical that is itself based on a 1956 London stage musical that in turn became a 2002 Broadway show.

Additional new songs by the brilliant chameleon-like composer Jeanine Tesori augment the original score, providing a set of knowing pastiches, from a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song to Gershwin-inflected ballads.

It’s being revived for a new tour, which borrows some more, from the show’s original Broadway logo to Morgan Large’s lovely art deco set from another production done at Kilworth House last summer.

Framed by an arch that feels inspired by the crown of the Statue of Liberty, with diamond-shaped teardrops that light up, it looks a treat. The production itself is less of one.

Director/choreographer Racky Plews does a workmanlike job of forging it into something smooth and efficient, but despite several game performances and one particularly over-ripe one, which is no doubt intentional but is no less grating for that, she can’t dispel a sense of it being an ersatz approximation of the fond pastiche that was intended. It feels at times like an imitation of an imitation of an old romantic screwball flapper musical comedy, somewhere between The Boy Friend, 42nd Street and Anything Goes, but not as good as any of them.

As in 42nd Street, we have a wide-eyed girl, straight off the bus from Kansas determined to make her way in New York, but her ambition is not to star in a show but to marry rich. In a tangled comic device that feels a little queasy after the recent controversy over ‘yellowface’ casting in the new Howard Barker play In the Depths of Dead Love, the residential hotel Millie goes to stay at is presided over by Mrs Meers, played by former EastEnders star Michelle Collins, a kimono-clad character who speaks (frequently garbled) Pidgin English, and is made to look a joke figure; she turns out to be (I kid you not) a white slave trader.

It’s not remotely funny and this only amplified by Collins’s over-egged performance. Meanwhile her ‘real’ Chinese assistants (called Ching Ho and Bun Foo) are played by Maltese-born Damian Buhagiar and Hong Kong trained Andy Yau respectively, which suggests that even the production’s attempt at authenticity is only partially achieved. Buhagiar is, however, one of the show’s most eye-catching dancers, moving as if on some kind of internal spring.

The production is on more secure ground when it plays it straight, with the show’s central romantic duo of Millie and Jimmy sweetly played by the gamine Joanne Clifton and the effortlessly charming Sam Barrett. But they can’t entirely dispel the sense of discomfort that permeates the show.

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A feel-good musical that leaves a bad aftertaste