Pros: A high-octane gin-soaked musical, performed with enthusiasm by a strong and energetic cast.
Cons: Weak lyrics and forgettable tunes, and a distinct lack of plot.
The whole of the first half is expository, as the motley assortment of guests take it in turns to sing a number each, relating their life story, detailing their current situation, announcing their aspirations and profiling their partners: “My Eddie’s a hero, just like Lindberg. Except Lindberg was white and flew planes, and Eddie’s black and beats people up.” Along the way the show explores sexual freedom, gay relationships, cross-dressing, marital infidelity, domestic violence, antisemitism, racism and gender identity – which would be a lot to pack into a musical, were it not for the fact there’s a cavernous hole where the plot should be. For despite the bitching, arguments, schmoozing and boozing, nothing really happens until the last five minutes. The guests misbehave, break up, make up and seduce each other, and that’s about it.
The Other Palace – recently renamed from the St James Theatre – is a splendid venue, with a very steep rake guaranteeing excellent sight lines even right up in the gods. Soutra Gilmour’s set design is outstanding, allowing the cast to appear not just on the main stage, but in the gallery with the musicians and on three levels of staircase. This does mean, however, that on occasion you have to hunt to find out who’s singing the current song.
The music, by Michael John LaChiusa, is rooted in 1920s jazz, with frequent nods to Brecht’s collaborator Kurt Weill – although some of the songs are more like first drafts for late Lloyd Webber musicals. While the songs are ably brought to life under the direction of Theo Jamieson, there’s none of the Kander and Ebb verve and sparkle of Cabaret or Chicago here, and you’ll leave the show unable to recall a single tune. That said, there is a lot of it. As a sung-through show, there’s barely a moment when the band isn’t playing.
Michael John LaChiusa also wrote the lyrics, which suffer from being ploddingly pedestrian. “You want to know why the past is called the past?” says Gold, one of the Jewish producers. “Because it’s the past. It’s over,” he adds weakly. Jokes, which are thin on the ground, drop limply from the performers’ lips: to the statement “Queenie, in my day discretion was the rule”, Queenie can retort no better than “Dolores, in your day they hadn’t even invented electricity.”
The cast is accomplished, with John Owen-Jones standing out as the bullying husband Burrs. Frances Ruffelle, as Queenie, has volume and gusto, but there’s no sense of a real person inhabiting her character. And this is part of the problem: there isn’t a single person in the ensemble of largely unlikeable partygoers that the audience can either relate to or empathise with.
The show has one or two stand-out moments. Most notably the manic scene at the end of the first half, where the characters romp in a bath full of homemade gin; but for the most part both the music and the lyrics are tedious, and the lack of action enervating. The second half, which deals with the morning after, begins somewhat bizarrely with a reprise of the scene that ends the first half. A clean break would have been more theatrically compelling.
Based on a scandalous 1927 poem by Joseph March, The Wild Party is a revival of the Broadway musical first performed in April 2000. Coincidentally, there were two productions of The Wild Party on Broadway in 2000; it could be that they’ve revived the wrong one.
Author: Michael John LaChiusa
Director/choreographer: Drew McOnie
Booking until: 1 April
Box Office: 0844 264 2121
Booking Link: https://www.theotherpalace.co.uk/theatre/wild-party/