BWW Reviews: PIPE DREAM, Union Theatre, August 15 2013
Down, if not quite down and out, in a 1950s California that was by-passed by the surfing craze (and most everything else in the booming post-war USA), Doc studies his starfish and acts as a benevolent patriarch to the bums and good-time girls of a one-horse town that the horse left long ago. We're in Steinbeck country, so life's tough, but we're also in Rodgers and Hammerstein country, so there's a gal not far away and, sure enough, one turns up. Suzy drifting into town without a dime is too sassy to give in to Doc's half-hearted advances and too proud for Fauna's brothel, but she soon finds that compromises must be made and not always for the worst.
It's all a rather strange recipe for a musical and the sense of awkwardness never really resolves itself, despite Sasha Regan's clever use of a space as cramped as the lives of the working girls and the not working guys. Lizzi Gee's choreography seems to push back the walls at times, with so much dancing on a floor that feels as tight as the pipe in which Suzy finds refuge and to dream of a better life.
Kieran Brown does his best with Doc, but we never really find out why he forsook his young rakish ways for his life with the starfish, nor why it's Suzy who turns his head. Charlotte Scott isn't given much more to work with, as Suzy is more often a petulant teen sulker than predatory vamp. Fortunately, both leads sing well and there are some lovely songs (even if one can't shake the thought that one or other of the great men who wrote their parts might walk on stage at any moment and say, "Are you sure we're doing the right thing here?")
If the romance is somewhat flat, the support cast are more than spiky enough to make up for it. Virge Gilchrist's Madame, Fauna, is all wise words and motherly good nature and her girls love her even more than they love Doc. They dance and sing very well too - when they are not adjusting their lingerie. The lads can also move and belt out a tune, with David Haydn as Doc's gentle, boozy, unlikely benefactor, Mack, the standout amongst uniformly strong performances.The accents wobble a little, but - and I'm not giving anything away here - we know we're not actually in California, so that's all right.
One is left with contradictory feelings - you can tell it's Rodgers and Hammerstein, but you can also tell why it flopped 50-odd years ago. You can understand exactly why it's never been produced in the UK before - but you can also understand why the Union Theatre has continued its fine history of finding old musical gems with this one. It's good and bad at the same time - pretty much like the lives Doc and Suzy led down on Cannery Row.
Pipe Dream continues at the Union Theatre until 31 August.