Celebrating British Music Theatre – Chu Chin Chow

Chu Chin Chow
Music by Frederic Norton, book and lyrics by Oscar Asche

Abdullah / Mukbil l / Mustafa – David John Watton
Khuzaymah – Sarah Jo Carter
Bostan – Hannah Richmond
Zahrat – Camilla Bard
Marjanah – Victoria Kruger
Alcolom – Esther Biddle
Abu Hasan – Edward Handoll
Kasim Baba / Otbah – Alex Dower
Mahbubah – Adèle Anderson
Nur – Will Barratt
Ali Baba – Alan Cox

Leigh Thompson – Musical director & piano
Anna Hamilton – cello
Paul Sadler – clarinet
Kim Reilly – flute
David Marley – trumpet

Alex Sutton – Director
Gabrielle Williams – Designer
Mushroom Zhao – Costume designer
Alessandro Munari – Lighting designer


Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 21 July, 2008
Venue: Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10

Oscar Asche as Chu Chin Chow (191?) by Will DonaldNot only does the ever-enterprising Finborough Theatre promote new plays as well as new musicals but also revives shows in its “Celebrating British Music Theatre” series. Having already revived Leslie Stuart’s “Our Miss Gibbs”, Lionel Monckton’s “Floradora”, Harold Fraser-Simson’s “The Maid of the Mountains”, Ethel Smyth’s “The Boatswain’s Mate” and, most recently, Sandy Wilson’s “The Buccaneer”, now it’s the turn of “Chu Chin Chow”, Frederick Norton and Oscar Asche’s popular oriental operetta dating from 1916 when it was an enormous hit with soldiers on leave from the First World War. It ran for 2,238 performances, all of five years, and held the West End record for forty years until “Salad Days”. Close on three-million people saw the show. Long runs are now commonplace, and the likes of “Les Misérables”, “A Chorus Line”, “Cats”, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia” will have overtaken “Chu Chin Chow” long ago, but in its day it was a fantastic success.

However, it’s hard to see why. “Chu Chin Chow was quite spectacular with chorus girls and colourful costumes, quite skimpy ones, apparently, that were a definite attraction for our ‘brave boys’ until the Lord Chamberlain demanded they should be toned down. It had exotic settings of Egypt, Java, Arabia and China in a mix of low comedy, high camp and exciting adventures based on the ‘Arabian Nights’ story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. By today’s standards it is pretty tame stuff but in its day it was the bee’s knees of popular entertainment. It was staged in productions overseas, although none of them lasted as long as the original London production. It toured the UK for many years and returned to London in 1940 and again in 1941 after the Blitz. It was a favourite for a long time with amateur groups, but the last professional production was a version on ice at the Empire Pool in Wembley in 1953, which I remember seeing as a child – more pantomime than musical comedy. There was a silent film version in 1923 and George Robey appeared as Ali Baba in the 1934 Gainsborough Studios sound film, with Anna May Wong as Zahrat.

English composer Frederic Norton (1869-1946) trained as a singer with Tosti and was also an actor working in music-hall and variety where he delivered comic monologues. This led to his writing songs and eventually his first musical show, “The Water Maidens”. In 1911 he provided extra music for Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” at Her Majesty’s Theatre which led to his being able to compose “Chu Chin Chow”.

Oscar Asche in Chu Chin ChowThe Australian-born Oscar Asche (1871-1936) wrote the book and lyrics. He trained as an actor in Norway where he met Henrik Ibsen who told him to go back home to work. Instead he went to London and appeared in many plays including Shakespeare and joined F. R. Benson’s company and that of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. In 1904 Asche became a theatre manager, running the Adelphi Theatre and subsequently Her Majesty’s where he appeared as Othello and in other roles. In 1911 he adapted and appeared in Edward Knoblock’s play “Kismet”. By 1916 he had written “Chu Chin Chow” in which he also appeared with his wife Lily Brayton, as well as producing and directing the show. He had great success directing another hit, “The Maid of the Mountains”, a long-runner with 1,352 performances.

Other musicals by Asche followed such as “Mecca” and “Cairo” but failed to match the success of “Chu Chin Chow”, which comes across as a mixture of Gilbert & Sullivan and pantomime. Presumably, back in 1916, audiences were still fascinated by anything oriental, so that the lavish costumes and the spectacle of the show were the main draw.

It is set in the palace of Kasim Baba who is preparing a feast for a wealthy merchant, one Chu Chin Chow from China. However, the bandit leader Abu Hasan arrives at Kasim’s palace disguised as Chu who his gang have robbed and murdered in order to get at Kasim’s treasures. Kasim’s brother, Ali Baba, meanwhile has discovered the secret of Abu Hasan’s secret cave of hidden treasure with the magic password of “open, sesame” … pure pantomime and indeed the story is often done at Christmas as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, an oriental alternative to “Aladdin”.

The Finborough has a tiny stage and it is brave to attempt a musical like “Chu Chin Chow”. However, even without the lavish decor (the action is played out on the Finborough’s current production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Hangover Square”), it is possible to get the flavour of the Arabian Nights tale and the eleven-strong cast and band of five musicians throw themselves into the show with complete abandon. The songs are not too memorable but there are a few classic numbers such as ‘I built a fairy palace in the sky’, ‘Anytime’s kissing time’ and the notorious ‘Cobbler’s song’, which has nothing to do with anything but has entered musical history with a vengeance.

The script is pseudo Shakespeare (“thee”, “thou”…) and lots of cod philosophising and flowery language. When Abu Hasan refers to any of his female acolytes it is something like “draw near, bloom of the desert” or “oh fairest flower” or “thou timid giraffe”, but Edward Handoll delivers the lines as if he really believed them. As Ali Baba Alan Cox gives a performance of studied wittiness that is as camp as Christmas or even Kenneth Williams. In fact he seems to have modelled his role on Frankie Howerd’s Lurcio in “Up Pompeii” and he even gets to say, “Nay, nay and thrice nay!” With all his leering at the audience and asides, he creates a truly comic character that must surely be even funnier than it was originally.

The rest of the cast enters into the spirit of the show and really make it work. David John Watton as Abdullah, Mukbill and Mustafa works hard for his shilling and Adèle Anderson as Mahbubah plays the requisite harridan with some exotic style. The musicians provide all the noises-off as well as the score. Director Alex Sutton keeps things on the move, so that we don’t have to stop and think too much about the holes in the plot. If the effects are not exactly spectacular, then they are at least charming. When the forty thieves hide in the pots, these receptacles are built only for the Munchkins or Tom Thumb; but never mind, that just adds to the general hilarity of a show that is worth reviving but not perhaps for too long.

  • Chu Chin Chow plays at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 on 27 & 28 July at 7.30 p.m.
  • Tickets: 0844 847 1652
  • Finborough Theatre

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