Director and producer Phil Willmott has proved himself a past master of the musical reinvention. But though his Essential Classics season at the Union Theatre has staged some intriguing and inventive older plays, musicals prove more of a challenge. None more so than this latest fusion of Offenbach and Pinero with the catchy title Can-Can! It’s a patchwork of a piece, freely adapted from Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ and featuring familiar characters from La Belle Epoch.
No matter how familiar the tunes, from Offenbach and his contemporaries, are, Willmott’s book remains a heinously cheesy affair, thin on character development and groaning with clichés. If the aim is to mimic the tropes of operetta, then it overshoots by a mile.
Phil Setren’s unsophisticated direction fails to find the right tone to match this style and despite the enthusiasm of the cast, this musical melodrama fails to take flight.
Penn O’Gara’s costume design is a tragedy of budgetary compromise and even Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design lacks its usual flair. Adam Haigh’s choreography attempts to embed itself in the narrative but only the high-kicking can-can finale stands out.
There is an interesting moment where Kathy Peacock and Damjan Mrackovich as lovers Jane and Christian burst into a ballet to the tune of Offenbach’s Barcarolle but its earnestness seems out of step with the leaden dialogue. The intentional laughs along the way are provided by Mark Garfield as Pujol, the celebrated flatulist but it will take more than a fart joke to save this piece.