Daniel Evans’ latest big summer musical has a lot in common with Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2016 hit Half a Sixpence.
A working class lad enters high society overnight, exposing the snobbery of some and bringing out the joie de vivre in others. Class tensions resolve in a dance-off between the haves and the have-nots. Evans’ revival of Me and My Girl even includes a joke about spoon-playing with the family silver, and a soulful starlit moment with a street lamp.
In fact, the programming of this classic cockney musical was more spontaneous than cynical. Little Britain star Matt Lucas suggested it to Evans, having seen Mike Ockrent’s West End production – the one that made book reviser Stephen Fry his first million – when he was 12.
This story of a cockney barrow boy rushed from rags to riches gains an extra dimension on press night, when understudy Ryan Pidgen has to stand in for Lucas (ordered to rest his voice).
Pidgen is brilliant – funny, slip-free and extraordinarily at ease as he leads a posse of pearly kings and queens in a big and brassy Lambeth Walk. You can make out the contours of Lucas’ performance, including the belly laughs and the boyish cheek. But the star’s absence also allows you to appreciate the cohesion of Evans’ ensemble.
They need it, because there is zero drama. You don’t believe for an instant that Alex Young’s cosy yet courageous Sally Smith will leave Bill, or that Caroline Quentin’s stern and surprisingly operatic Duchess isn’t a rebel and a romantic underneath. To compensate, they’ve inserted a jerkily balletic nightmare sequence, while Sally and Bill lapse convivially into music hall routines. Fry’s saucy comic flourishes are matched by witty choreography, with Lady Jacqueline’s social climbing represented by a series of audacious lifts.
Lez Brotherston’s impressive design moves between a smoggy, silhouetted London and the imposing turrets of Snibson’s ancestral pile. Hareford Hall rises up like the gothic centrepiece of a pop-up book, and provides the backdrop for atmospheric projections.
Musical director Gareth Valentine pops up during the encore playing the washboard. But his presence is felt throughout in the playfully augmented arrangements. An exaggeratedly English setting of The Sun Has Got His Hat On, all striped bathers and glasses of Pimms, gives itself sunstroke with a Latin samba breakout. Pidgen gets a lesson in heredity from armoured knights dancing a Bergamask. Only Sally’s solo, Once You Lose Your Heart, is deliberately left plain.
Whether its intended star has got his pork pie hat on or not, Chichester Festival is determinedly coming out to play.