You know that thing about “past performance is no indication of future return” you get in the small print of financial ads? It could as easily apply to musicals.

Someone at a desk in New York in the 1960s when Darling of the Day was on the table must have made a value judgement that Jule Styne, having just knocked out the score to Gypsy, was a cast-iron certainty, as was his lyricist collaborator Yip Harburg who’d written “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (for Chrissakes!!). Throw in a crafty short story about a guy faking his own death from some Limey literary dude called Arnold Bennett and you’re surely on to a winner?

Perhaps a similar conversation took place at the Union Theatre when they considered reviving it? It had indeed won 9 Tonys on Broadway including one for Patricia Routledge, Hyacinth Bucket herself, in a first outing to America. Director Paul Foster is one of the safest pair of hands the Union entrusts with its revivals, his recent Bells Are Ringing being an unmitigated hit, and the cast have all the right experience.

You could hear the tension in Foster’s voice when he made a pre-show announcement that a virus had ravaged the company, and that rather than cancel some actors would “save” their voices. Despite some upstage nose-dabbing and the slightly farcical dubbing of one voice from offstage, they gave it a valiant shot. If some people left at the interval it was more likely the risk of infection rather than any disappointment with the sterling efforts of the cast.

For anyone brought up in the Goon Show era or influenced by its comedy, there is a treat in that the two actor offspring of the late, great Harry Secombe both appear in this production: Katy as a perky spinster determined to make her match through a matrimonial agency and brother Andy as a fistful of excellently differentiated characters.

Unfortunately, their efforts are somewhat wasted on this piece: the plot centres on Priam Farll (great performance from James Dinsmore), a successful but snarky painter who has been exiled to the South Seas while out of favour with Queen Victoria, but returns after her demise to a knighthood and being fêted as “the darling of the day” in smart circles, which he hates. The death of his valet is an opportunity to assume a humbler identity, which works well as he marries Katy Secombe’s character and enjoys their home life until a financial crisis means he has to sell some of the artworks painted by his deceased other self. The tying up of the strings which unravel from this is accomplished only by the sort of tortuous conclusion favoured by Gilbert and Sullivan, and via the one memorable production number from the whole show “Not On Your Nellie”, where Matt Flint’s choreography really does let rip.

The book is a mess: there are too many short scenes and class distinctions; with the endless shuttling between art galleries, stately homes, Cockerney terraces and domestic sitting rooms there’s a constant conveyor belt of furniture shifting interspersed with the need to clear the Union’s limited floor space for production numbers. In fact, the set is deliberately minimal, and it’s Jason Meininger’s effective and closely-focused lighting that does most of the design work to set and vary the mood.

Part of the Union’s mission is to rediscover lost musicals, and whilst this one’s a bit of a turkey they do serve it up with all the trimmings. But if they were looking for a forgotten show based on an old Arnold Bennett tale that really is ripe for their treatment, may I humbly suggest The Card?

Date reviewed: Friday 22nd March 2013
Image © Kay Young

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.