tue 23/07/2024

theartsdesk MOT: Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk MOT: Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse Theatre

theartsdesk MOT: Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse Theatre

Amiably undemanding jukebox musical twists its way ever onward

Let's twist again: 'Dancing on Ice' star Sam Attwater makes his West End debut

It's one of the distinctions of the London theatre to be at once highbrow and middle-of-the-road, to offer up esoterica from Ibsen and Schiller while allowing audiences elsewhere the chance to rock out to the bel

oved pop icons of their choice. And so in the town that gave us The Roy Orbison Story and offered numerous West End homes for Buddy, we now have Dreamboats and Petticoats twisting away into its third year, and second London playhouse (namely, the Playhouse), with no end in sight. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Plenty, some might say, at least those for whom there's a limit to just how many jukebox musicals a cultural capital can take. (The Beatles, long absent locally from this phenomenon, will be back in the fray when the film-turned-stage-show Backbeat opens in October.) But the point is that a city capable of simultaneously fielding two entirely contrasting, in some ways even contradictory Much Ado About Nothings surely has room for a sweet-natured piece of fluff set "somewhere in Essex" (I assume the deliberate vagueness is to prevent tribal outbursts) a half-century ago.

Put another way, you'd be mad to head to Dreamboats and Petticoats expecting the grey cells to be too heavily taxed. But if you want to re-awaken an appetite for wagon wheels and toffee apples, this is the show for you: I'm surprised the management doesn't offer a complimentary knickerbocker glory to the denizens who rock out most avidly during the extended jam session that functions both as curtain call and as the production's inevitable raison d’être. As is the way of such ventures, an 11th-hour shimmy and shake is the public's reward for surviving the two hours of story that have come before.

That narrative has here been entrusted to Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, the veteran TV scribes who can hardly have been extensively tested by dialogue from the "table tennis isn't the same as rock'n'roll, dad" school of confrontation. That said, it's not easy in our cynical times to sustain the innocence and good cheer proffered by a show that simply wants the acne-plagued 17-year-old Bobby (Scott Bruton) to loosen up in the hope that the audience will follow suit. Sure, a distaff teenager wiggles her breasts, elsewhere advising the lovesick Bobby that "it's all in the grip". But such innuendo passes with the same half-smile that meets a fleeting Cliff Richard jab, the distance between then and now borne out in the visual references to Nivea skin cream in an age before body fascism had taken its brutal hold. (Bruton, it must be said, looks as if he's auditioning to star in an English remake of Glee.)

Bobby thinks he's saving himself for the comely siren that is Sue (Susannah Allman), only to discover his actual soulmate in the gormless, bespectacled form of the music-minded Laura (Charlotte Jeffery): the kind of kid who can rattle off Chopin's dates(!). Jeffery brings a strong voice and genuine personality to a stock role, her belated discourse on the architecture of songs a cheering reminder that trips down memory lane can enlighten even as they entertain. (Who wants to bet Laura goes on to be a professor in this show's as-yet-unwritten sequel?)

dreamboats2Some of the men have trouble hitting, and holding, the high notes of 40-plus songs ranging from "Shakin' All Over" and "Runaround Sue" to "Only the Lonely" and the title number, that last a given in light of the pre-existing compilation album without which the director Bob Tomson's stage incarnation would not exist. (David Gale's Ray is the outstanding male vocalist.) There's an oh-so-cool - well, in his eyes anyway - bad boy, of course, in the person of the sardonic, leather-jacketed Norman, who is played in his West End debut by Sam Attwater. A beefy presence who doesn't necessarily suggest the first person from that stage that you would expect to be leading "Let's Twist Again" (see the ensemble cutting the rug above), the 2011 Dancing on Ice champ moves as smoothly as Norman chats up the ladies, and there's no doubt that Attwater has joined the show because he wants to be there, not just as a cheesy marketing gimmick.

Indeed, it's the show's open-faced quality that enhances the geniality of an evening constructed as a memory play (the older Bobby's de-cluttering of his attic sends his mind hurtling backwards), The Catcher in the Rye and Psycho among cultural templates that are given their due. And if the audience starts humming along the moment Laura in the second act embarks upon "Teenager in Love"? Here's a show for teens of all ages, which is to say that I've rarely seen a largely middle-aged crowd looking quite so happy.

If you want to re-awaken an appetite for wagon wheels and toffee apples, this is the show for you

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