By Sarah Lambie, TD editor
There are hundreds of new British musicals in development at any one time, and on all sorts of obscure and imaginative topics. Sadly it is usually only those thought to have some major commercial value which make it all the way to a full production in a reputable theatre space. I say sadly because commercial value rarely serves as a marker for quality: witness Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical.
That a little show about the lady who developed the A-Z by walking the streets of London and drawing everything herself should have made it to the Southwark Playhouse with a variously award-winning star cast is a wonderful testament to the work of its writers Diane Samuels (of Kindertransport) and jazz musician and singer/songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.
The show is a delight. A moving storyline about a real family (though Phyllis Pearsall was notably something of an inventor of truths, so everything is to be taken with a smidgeon of salt); the portrayals of Phyllis’s exuberant and troubled parents by Michael Matus and Frances Ruffelle are particularly brilliant. I was unsure at first about Isy Suttie’s Mrs P, who seemed vocally too quiet, and stylistically too understated to carry either the audience’s interest or concern, but her characterisation really grew on me, and I appreciated her naturalism particularly in the context of two beautiful solo songs: award-winning ‘Lovely London Town’, and ‘A Girl Needs a Husband’.
The set design is beautiful, and the production is a good example for students of what one can do with a collaborative process to create ensemble-based sets and atmospheres: involving actor-made sound effects, for example, in not too clichéd a manner.
For me, the joy of the piece is in the writing – the way in which the cast slip from dialogue into song and out again with puns, plays on the alphabet and street names, and beautiful imagery would be particularly inspiring for any budding playwrights. The reworking of the same essential character to play all of London’s service-providing men: taxi drivers, delivery men, newspaper sellers, and so on, is a particularly nice touch, and played with a twinkle by Ian Caddick.
The show runs only until 29 March at the Southwark Playhouse, but I feel sure that it will have a life hereafter, and I certainly recommend it.
To find out more information, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/index.php/the-large/the-a-z-of-mrs-p.