Darling of the Day [Union Theatre]

Darling of the Day
Musical comedy with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, and book by Nunnally Johnson based on the play The Great Adventure by Arnold Bennett taken from his novel Buried Alive [UK staged premiere]

Priam Farll – James Dinsmore
Alice Challice – Katy Secombe
Clive Oxford – Michael Hobbs
Lady Vale – Rebecca Caine
Alf – Matthew Rowland
Bert / Leek’s Son – John Sandberg
Sidney / Doctor – Dan Looney
Henry Leek / Judge – Andy Secombe
Duncan Farll / Framemaker – Jonathan Leinmuller
Daphne – Catherine Digges
Pennington / Cabby – Will Keith
Mrs Leek – Olivia Maffett
Flower Girl / Stenographer – Bethan Wyn-Davies

Inga Davis-Rutter (musical director & piano), Elaine Booth (reeds), Adam Behrens (bass) & Nicky Caulfield (drums)

Paul Foster – Director
Sasha Regan – Producer
Matt Flint – Choreographer
Naomi Wright – Set Designer
Jason Meininger – Lighting Designer
Elle-Rose Hughes – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 23 March, 2013
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London

Katy Secombe and The Company (Darling of the Day, Union Theatre, March 2013)The author and journalist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a prodigious writer who, in his books, paid tribute to the lives of ordinary folk. He came from a humble family in the Staffordshire Potteries and based his most famous novels, the Clayhanger trilogy (of four books!) on the area where he was born and raised in Victorian England. By sheer force of personality and hard work he became highly successful writing about people like himself, who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In Buried Alive (1908) he wrote about one Priam Farll, a painter who is the favourite of Mayfair art patrons but who becomes bored with his success and tries to avoid being buried alive in the suffocating society.

Having offended Queen Victoria, Farll was exiled to the South Seas where he remained a recluse for some twenty years. Called back to Britain with his valet, Henry Leek, in order to be knighted by the King, he finds that the art world hasn’t changed. Many of his paintings have been sold to one Lady Vale at a high price. Back in Belgravia for the ceremony, the valet has a heart attack and dies. The doctor mistakes the dead Leek for Farll, so he decides to switch roles and become his own servant. However, pretending to be Leek poses a problem in that the butler had been corresponding with a young woman via a marriage bureau. He eventually meets Alice Challice in her lower-middle-class cottage in Putney. They get on well and Farll is happy to be away from high society and enjoying a simple life with his uncomplicated wife and her down-to-earth friends. He carries on painting.

It is a delightful story charmingly told in Jule Styne’s bouncy tunes and E. Y. Harburg’s clever and witty lyrics. They both had fine previous form, Styne having written the music for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gypsy, Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl, while Harburg was noted for his lyrics for The Wizard of Oz, Bloomer Girl and Finian’s Rainbow as well as numerous popular songs. However, it is amazing that the show got as far as Broadway. Bennett had adapted Buried Alive as a play called The Great Adventure in 1913. It was a silent film in 1915 in the UK and there was an American version with Lionel Barrymore and Fredric March in 1921. A further film, His Double Life (1933), starred Roland Young and Lilian Gish, and the BBC did a television version in 1939 with Leonard Sachs, Felix Aylmer and Finlay Currie. The Great Adventure was also filmed in 1943 as Holy Matrimony with Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields, with a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson who subsequently wrote the book for the musical version now known as Darling of the Day.

The first writers to be approached for the musical were Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (of Billy Liar fame) with Peter Wood directing. Then writer S. N. Behrman and director Steven Vinaver took over, but finally, in 1966, Johnson came on board for the book. Casting too went through several changes beginning with Victor Borge and Geraldine Page until Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge were chosen. The title of the show changed several times. After further personnel were drafted in to doctor the script, Johnson took his name off the show and it opened in 1968 with no book credit. Styne and Harburg had written some thirty songs, only half of which were used.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the show folded in New York after just thirty-two performances. It received a few good notices though and was championed by Walter Kerr of the New York Sunday Times who thought Routledge had made the “best musical comedy debut since Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence came to this country”. It has rarely been revived, apart from a few concert performances and a staged production in Illinois in 2005. London saw it in Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals series.

Darling of the Day is in the traditional mould of Broadway musicals and the Union Theatre now gives the long-overdue British staging. As usual the venue gives us the full force of the musical comedy in the singing and the dancing. Coming a few years after Oliver! it has touches of the Lionel Bart about it in its depiction of the differences between Edwardian polite society and the working classes, not surprising as Jule Styne was born in London (in 1905, the year in which the show is set). Although he moved with his parents to Chicago at age eight, he could probably recall cockney songs and in Darling of the Day numbers such as ‘Not on your Nellie’, ‘Money, money, money’ and ‘It’s enough to make a lady fall in love’ sound truly British. Coupled with that, lyricist Harburg was a great lover of Gilbert & Sullivan, as his patter songs ‘He’s genius’, ‘Panache’, ‘A gentleman’s gentleman’ and ‘Butler in the Abbey’ demonstrate. The music also recalls The Music Man or even My Fair Lady.

It’s a very tuneful and attractive score and the cast rise to the occasion with all stops pulled out. James Dinsmore as Farll makes the character a sympathetic hero who is innately shy. Playing Alice, his bouncy bundle of fun, Katy Secombe gives an attractive performance as a working-class woman with scruples and far from the painter’s usual crowd of hangers-on, such as the callous art-gallery owner Clive Oxford (Michael Hobbs, waxing cunning), or even the money-mad Lady Vale (Rebecca Caine). Andy Secombe contributes a number of small roles including Leek, the King and the Judge, with equal aplomb. Alice’s mates – Alf, Bert, Sidney (Matthew Rowland, John Sandberg and Dan Looney) and their girlfriends – kick up a storm in some stunning choreography by Matt Flint. The foursome that is the band give the score a jolly going-over, with the ballads such as ‘Let’s see what happens’ and ‘Sunset tree’ nicely romantic. Congratulations for reviving this rarely performed musical, as a reminder of what a Broadway show used to sound and look like.

  • Darling of the Day is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 20 April 2013
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2.30 p.m. [no performance on Easter Sunday, 31 March]
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876
  • www.uniontheatre.biz

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