Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer

The Buccaneer
A musical play – book, lyrics and music by Sandy Wilson

Presented as a script-in-hand performance by the Ocean Theatre Company in its Celebrating British Music Theatre series

The MP / Mr Donkin – John Paton
Mrs Barraclough – April Nicholson
Mabel Grey – Jennifer Hepburn
Walter Maximus – Sam Mancuso
Peter Curtis – John McManus
Waitress/ Kid – Maggie Blake
Waitress/ Kid – Jennifer Reischel
Montgomery Winterton – Tim Edwards
Mrs Winterton – Helen Watson
Marilyn Maximus – Samantha Giffard
Kids – Robbie Gardner and Ian Tutin

Jeff Brady or Graeme Thewlis – Keyboard

Andrew Miller – Director
Jeff Brady – Musical Director
Fiona Davis – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 23 June, 2008
Venue: Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10

Playbill for the original London castSandy Wilson has the distinction of possibly having written the most successful musical in the world, “The Boy Friend”, which he wrote in 1953 as an end-of-season diversion for the company at the Players’ Theatre under the arches in Charing Cross. It was a charming spoof of a 1920s’ musical and became an immediate success, which then transferred to the Embassy Theatre at Swiss Cottage, before being expanded from an hour to a full-length show and transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End where it ran for five years. It had a shorter but still successful run on Broadway with Julie Andrews: it’s the show that made her famous. It also subsequently had a long run off-Broadway and it is said that it has been played somewhere every week since then. Sadly, Wilson never managed to repeat the same success with his subsequent musicals. These shows include “Valmouth”, “Divorce me, darling!”, “Call it love” and “His monkey wife” and, long before Kander & Ebb’s ”Cabaret” came along, he tried his own musical version of Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” stories, but abandoned it before it was completed. He also wrote incidental music for television shows and contributed songs to revues. He is still with us and has written several books including his autobiography.

“The Buccaneer” was written between the two versions of “The Boy Friend” and first presented at the tiny Watergate Theatre off London’s Strand in September 1953. The success of “The Boy Friend” in both London and New York meant “The Buccaneer” could transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith, for which production Wilson wrote some extra numbers. It sold out, went on tour and returned to West End, to the Apollo Theatre for a further run. The idea for the show came from a real-life incident, the flooding of the British publishing market with ‘horror comics’ from the USA. These were the days of “The Boys’ Own Paper”, “The Rover”, “The Hotspur”, “Film Fun”, “The Beano, and the ever-so-worthy Children’s Newspaper – none of them great literary masterpieces but a darned sight better than the gruesome imports from the States. Questions were asked in the House because it was felt that the crude imports were a threat to sales of the UK’s boys’ magazines and also a threat to their readers’ mental and moral welfare.

In Wilson’s show “The Buccaneer” is a fictional boys’ magazine that is losing circulation and money and going out of business. The widow of the owner has to decide whether she should sell the title to a brash American publisher, who plans to change it into an ‘atomic comic’ called “Jump Jet”. Somehow the publisher’s secretary manages to persuade her boyfriend’s employer (a private tutor to a precocious kid called Montgomery Winterton, son of a rich widow) to save the paper. When the widow Winterton coughs up the cash, they little realise that her young son wants to edit the magazine and somehow the daughter of the US publisher also gets involved. With the show being run by two kids, life gets even more insane until Montgomery organises a campaign for all the young readers of “The Buccaneer” to march on Westminster in protest about the impending loss of their favourite comic character, Captain Fairbrother.

Sandy Wilson (b.1924)Casting the original show in 1955 was difficult, as one of the leading characters, a twelve-year-old boy, has to act like an adult. The problem was finding an adult actor who could act convincingly as a child. The answer was Kenneth Williams who had recently been successful in Orson Welles’s “Moby Dick” and as the Dauphin in Shaw’s “St Joan” opposite Siobhan McKenna. Even then Williams was a brilliant character-actor and he got the part of Winterton immediately.

Fifty or so years ago the London stage was a different place and British musical-theatre was still in the hands of Julian (“Salad Days”) Slade and Sandy (“The Boy Friend”) Wilson, whose first names were both later to be enshrined in the Julian and Sandy sketches on “Round the Horne”. These were the days before John Osborne’s “Look back in anger” changed the face of British theatre and saw off Terence Rattigan’s French-window settings that had been so much a part of the West End. This was just a few years before more realistic musical shows such as “Make me an offer”, “Fings ain’t wot they used t’be”, “Oliver!” and “Sparrers can’t sing” hit town. By the 1960s things had changed irrevocably.

Up to the end of the 1950s audience expectations were simpler and they were entertained very easily. Today the ethos of “The Buccaneer” is difficult to sustain, although at times it is very amusing both in itself and as a reminder of how innocent those days were. The Ocean Theatre’s staging without décor and read from the actors’ scripts is worth seeing just for the light it shines on the musicals of its time. It is old-fashioned, twee, and sometimes hard to swallow, but it does have joie de vivre.

It’s down to the cast to try to make us believe that what is happening is for real. Andrew Miller’s direction gets the best out of most of the actors, especially the scenes with Montgomery and his tutor Peter, although if they do not reach the pitch of Jules and Sand, they certainly put one in mind of Enid Blyton’s “Five go off to camp”, but maybe that was just Sandy Wilson caricaturing the sort of story that children enjoyed in comics. Indeed Tim Edwards’s performance is almost in the Kenneth Williams league, complete with face-pulling and the constant bid for attention. Samantha Giffard as Marilyn. daughter of the US publisher, is well-cast opposite Edwards and together they make a very appealing pair of brats. Mrs Winterton (the part originally played by Thelma Ruby) is probably not comic enough as played by Helen Watson. She is supposed to be quite dippy whereas here she is too stern and serious. John McManus as Peter has a good voice and projects well as the hero of the day in his alter ego role of a fictional comic hero. Sam Mancuso as the US publisher Maximus is, for its time, a suitably stereotypical bombastic American.

Sandy Wilson’s score is gentle and tuneful albeit relentlessly jolly and there are some good numbers such as ‘Good clean fun’, ‘Unromantic us’, ‘Something’s missing’, ‘In the good old USA’, ‘Learn to do something well’ and the obligatory number for the older couple, ‘Behind the times’. All the numbers are well executed, although some of the scenes could have done with more rehearsal. Altogether, though, “The Buccaneer” succeeds on charm alone.

And Ocean Theatre’s next venture at the Finborough is … “Chu Chin Chow”, from 14 July.

  • The Buccaneer is at the Finborough Theatre on 29 & 30 June at 7.30 p.m.
  • Tickets on 0844 847 1652
  • Finborough Theatre

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