Ruthless! The Musical review at Arts Theatre, London – ‘nasty, waspish, self-satisfied’
This cult show, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1992 is an admirable act of self-defeat; a show that points out its own pointlessness.
It attempts to satirise the world of ambitious – even murderous – show children and their pushy parents, producers and press agents. Eight year old Tina wants the lead in the school musical so badly that she kills her fellow student to get it, while her (initially) showbiz-hating mother and theatre critic grandmother try to set her right.
Writers Joel Paley and Marvin Laird hit all their marks: Shirley Temple, The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, Gypsy’s Baby June, Auntie Mame, and on and on in high-camp that makes panto look Chekhovian by comparison.
But parody has to have a point, and this doesn’t. It’s not nearly sophisticated enough. Instead, it’s a full flow of really bland songs and cheap, tasteless gags which a mostly admirable cast can’t redeem.
Still, who better to mock the depressing world of women in the golden age of showbiz than a bunch of men? From the all male creative team (save choreographer Rebecca Howell) to the four male producers (and one woman) to the programme note on powerful women in Hollywood written by a man (that even points out the awkwardness of men having creative control of portrayals of ruthless women), it seems a bit weird to ask us to celebrate a show that sets up in-fighting amongst a group of women, and then laughs at them and brands them mega-bitches.
Sense of humour failure? Taking it too seriously, when after all it’s just a comedy? Maybe. But so much of the show is exerting downward pressure – literally at one point when Sylvia pushes Tina’s head down to force her into the splits – that rather than satirising a horrible world, it just feels horrible itself.
Let’s deal with the positives: the costumes by Morgan Large are wonderful, all late 1950s floral patterns with swing dresses cinched at the waist.
Dancing on Ice judge Jason Gardiner would be good as a panto dame, which is what he plays here. Anya Evans, one of four young actors playing Tina, is a great performer, tap dancer and singer – a triple threat of the future, with Kim Maresca reprising her role as Tina’s housewife-turned-monster mom after playing it Off-Broadway in 2015. And Tracie Bennett captures the inner self-loathing and tortured misery of being a theatre critic.
It would be easy to argue the timeliness of this revival, coming off the back of the sublime Feud which dramatised all the grotesquery of being a woman in 1950s showbiz. But where Feud found depth and sympathy, this just mocks and hopes that’s funny enough.
Really this is all one big, nasty, waspish, self-satisfied in-joke of a show pandering to, and so reproducing, the cruelties it is attempting to satirise. Ruthless? No. Pointless? Yep, that’s more like it.