You have to admire the ambition of the Union Theatre. This tiny, south London fringe venue is fearless, with a programme made up almost entirely of musical revivals – classics such as their recent superb take on ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ and others which perhaps fared less well on earlier outings but deserve another chance – “Children of Eden” and “The Beautiful Game” in particular spring to mind.
The Union might be forgiven for playing safe in their choices, but artistic director Sasha Regan never allows the theatre’s smaller space to get in the way of a good show, and problems are regularly overcome with humour and inventiveness.
The Union’s latest offering is a revival of the 1988 musical ‘Lucky Stiff,’ a screwball farce based on the novel ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren who went on to score major successes with ‘Ragtime’ and, more recently, ‘Anastasia’. Previously seen at London’s Bridewell Theatre in 1997, ‘Lucky Stiff’ is perhaps best-suited to a more intimate space. Expanding it, as with the much-maligned and perhaps best-forgotten 2015 film version, only brings into sharp focus the wild implausibility of the plot.
Long associated with the Union as a producer, Paul Callen makes his directorial debut here, eschewing many of the farcical trappings of other productions, and in the process allowing a much tighter focus on the characters. Whilst this is not a show where the songs will necessarily stay with you, it’s certainly a polished score with a lovely mix of varied, witty songs and MD Richard Baker’s unobtrusive three-piece band are a delight.
The plot sees London shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) receiving a telegram informing him that a long-forgotten uncle Tony in America has died leaving him $6 million, the terms of the will stipulating that to inherit he must take said late uncle’s embalmed, wheelchair-bound body to Monte Carlo for the dream holiday that he had always wanted. As you do.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Tony’s mistress, the myopic Rita (an excellent Natalie Moore-Williams), confesses to her brother Vinnie that she and Tony had swindled her casino-owning husband, Nicky, out of $6 million in diamonds. Subsequently suspecting that Tony was cheating on her, Rita admits that she shot her lover and blamed the whole scam on Vinnie. Brother and sister set off to Monte Carlo in pursuit of the diamonds which Harry is carrying in a heart-shaped box, with her hubby in pursuit.
Also on Harry’s trail is Annabel Glick, an employee of the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, which stands to inherit the fortune should Harry fail to keep to the rigid instructions tape-recorded by Tony for the Monte Carlo trip prior to his death.
As Harry attempts to fulfil his late uncle’s final wishes and bag the inheritance, he and Annabel gradually grow closer but the course of true love takes a wayward turn when they discover that Uncle Tony is far from dead...
It's a lovely production but the one thing which slightly lets it down is the set. The plot moves between London, Atlantic City, Nice and Monte Carlo - “a lovely foreign place” the lyrics tell us, but the simplicity of the staging fails to convince of its opulence.
Amongst a strong cast, Tom Elliot Reade brings real charm to the role of Harry, whilst Natasha Hoeberigs, who has big shoes to fill playing Annabel (the role previously having been played by Frances Ruffelle at the Bridewell) acquits herself with real aplomb.
Natalie Moore-Williams mines every drop of humour as the brassy Rita, whilst Lydia Marcazzo brings a sultry sophistication as the nightclub singer Dominique Du Monaco. Watch out, too, for Daniel Urch as the nightclub emcee – like many of the cast he is relatively new to the business but displays a real talent for comedy and a beautiful singing voice.
The choreography, as so often at The Union, is a sheer delight – international choreographer Jamie Neale brings his wealth of experience and it shows – the dance numbers are sublime, particularly the opener, ‘Something Funny’s Going On. ’
If you’re looking for a fun musical comedy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than this - 'Lucky Stiff' happily continues the Union Theatre’s reputation as the go-to venue for lovers of Musical Theatre.
'Lucky Stiff' runs until 21 October, 2017