How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has been revived several times since its original premiere in 1961. Whilst the most popular recent revival featured Daniel Radcliffe in a full-scale production on Broadway, Southwark Playhouse’s finite rendition takes a different approach.
Window cleaner, J Pierrepont Finch (Gabrielle Friedman), meticulously follows the steps listed in his “How To” guide and rises through the ranks in the World Wide Wicket Company. The Book, voiced by RuPaul’s Drag Race judge, Michelle Visage, comically warns Finch of joining the calamitous advertising department. Through lying, manipulation and charming his boss, JB Biggley (Tracie Bennett), Finch soon finds himself out of depth.
The musical navigates amusing office-related scenarios, such as the dull office party, awkward romances between colleagues and the utter calamity of not having a regular coffee break. Although written in the 1960s, How to Succeed…contains themes which are still prevalent today.
One notable aspect of this production is its commitment to inclusivity with gender-blind casting: Finch and Biggley are, for example, not played by men. While this aims to make a statement, it seems more like a surface-level gesture. The production misses a unique opportunity to delve into an exploration of gender roles within the workplace. Additionally, the script remains unchanged, failing to reflect the progressive casting choices. This contrasts with the sexist subject matter, particularly evident in songs like ‘A Secretary Is Not a Toy.’ It would have been more impactful if we saw a female or non-binary CEO and a male secretary.
Presenting the show on a much smaller scale, choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento faces the challenge of fitting dance sequences into a compact stage, where the audience is seated on three sides. At times, musical numbers feel overcrowded and messy due to the lack of space. However, there are instances where having fewer actors on stage results in more effective performances, as seen in songs like ‘The Executive Washroom’ and ‘I Believe in You.’
Additionally, the set faces limitations due to the small space, making it challenging to create dynamic settings. The use of a lit-up neon ladder to symbolise climbing the corporate ladder is a visually intriguing concept but not utilised enough. At the back of the stage is a colourful storage unit with mismatched fronts that is reminiscent of something from the children’s section of an IKEA catalogue. The band sits above the unit and it feels as if they might tumble off at any moment.
The costumes are bold in colour but fail to leave a lasting impression, except for the ‘Paris Original’ dress, which amusingly all four secretaries wear to the office party. As Finch climbs the corporate ladder, one would expect to witness a progression in both costumes and set design. Unfortunately, this is not the case, leaving the overall visual experience somewhat disappointing.
Musical numbers such as ‘Been a Long Day’ and ‘The Company Way’ are crowd-pleasers and notably exhibit Verity Power’s (Smitty) and Danny Lane’s (Twimble/ Wally Womper) talented singing. The score has undergone slight modifications and key changes to suit the cast. Their cohesive sound showcases exceptional harmonies and demonstrates that they are at their best when singing as a group.
Comedic ability is effectively displayed by Allie Daniel who plays Rosemary Pilkington, Finch’s love interest. Certain punchlines, such as sending a memo around the office about sending too many memos, made the audience giggle.
Southwark Playhouse’s How to Succeed… almost offers a fresh perspective on this classic musical, but the production misses opportunities for deeper exploration and progression in set design and costumes. However, standout performances, clever moments of comedy, and relevant themes ensure an enjoyable theatrical experience.
Book by: Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by: Georgie Rankcom
Choreography by: Alexzandra Sarmiento
Set and costume design by: Sophia Pardon
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying plays at Southwark Playhouse until 17 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.