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Strike Up the Band review at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – ‘a spirited, witty revival’

Scene from Strike Up the Band at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London. Photo: Andreas Lambis
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In terms of its subject matter, George and Ira Gershwin’s musical satire Strike Up the Band is as cheesy as it gets.

When the American government imposes 50% tariffs on imported cheese, a complaint from the Swiss government leads to the waging of war on this dinky country that no one has heard of, offering the perfect opportunity to indulge in patriotism, the quintessential American pastime (complete with Make America Grate Again baseball caps).

Mark Giesser’s spirited, topical production marks the first time that George S Kaufman’s original 1927 book has been used in a British production, as it was softened in a reworked version presented in 1930. It features the kind of head-spinning logic you’d find in Gilbert and Sullivan combined with the Gershwins’ jazz-infused wistfulness, including the standards The Man I Love and I’ve Got a Crush on You.

The staging is relatively simple, with projections setting up the scenario and Camille Etchart’s set design featuring cheese advertisements and Alpine scenery.

At almost three hours long, the slight plot it stretched out as far as it can possibly go and there is a tendency for the band to overpower the singers. The performances are strong, though, with Richard Emerson particularly enjoyable as the jovially power-hungry cheese tycoon Horace J Fletcher and Paul Biggin appealing as Jim, the Grade B milk whistleblower. Pippa Winslow’s second husband-seeking widow is also a lot of fun.

The whole thing could easily have felt terribly dated, but in the age of Trump, no lampooning of American politics seems too extreme or surreal.

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Spirited, witty and opportune revival of a little-known Gershwin/Kaufman satire