If you didn’t know there was a Gershwin musical about cheese, don’t feel bad – you’re not the only one. When Strike Up The Band was first performed in 1927, Philadelphia audiences didn’t respond well to its political satire, and it took three years and significant rewrites (including swapping cheese for chocolate) for the show to make it to Broadway. But it’s the original version that opened last night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, finally making its London premiere after 90 years courtesy of Alces Productions. Written by George S. Kaufman with music by George and Ira Gershwin, the show is a complex web of sub-plots that takes some time to unravel. It’s also completely bonkers – but quite enjoyably so.
The central storyline involves American tycoon Horace J. Fletcher (Richard Emerson), who convinces the U.S. president’s advisor (Robert Finlayson) that the country should go to war with Switzerland after they protest against high tariffs on imported cheese. While this is going on, a number of romances are underway: Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) has fallen for journalist Jim Townsend (Paul Biggin), but faces a dilemma when she discovers he objects to her father’s war, widow Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) has her heart set on Fletcher himself, and her daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) is desperate to marry her man, Timothy Harper (Adam Scott Pringle) despite her mother’s objections (and only being seventeen years old). And that’s not even all of it; with so much to get through, it’s a wonder the show isn’t longer than its already impressive run time of three hours.
It may not have resonated with Americans in 1927, when war was over and the economy was booming, but the story certainly strikes a chord in 2019. In a show about America’s lust for war and obsession with putting its own interests first, with a protagonist who’s a success in business but not much good at anything else, parallels with Donald Trump are there for the taking and director Mark Giesser doesn’t hesitate. It may not always be particularly subtly done (at one point four characters in this 1920s musical all don bright yellow “Make America Grate” baseball caps) but that doesn’t stop it being funny – at least to a British audience; who knows if Americans would be as amused.
Whether or not it tickles your funny bone, though, there’s no arguing the production is very well done. The excellent cast deliver skilful comedy performances, with a delivery at times so deadpan it takes a moment for the audience to catch on to the joke. And amidst the madness there are moments of real emotion too; Beth Burrows and Paul Biggin’s romantic duet – and one of the show’s best-known numbers – The Man I Love is a highlight, as is the moving Homeward Bound, performed by Sammy Graham, Adam Scott Pringle and Paul Biggin in Act 2. Bobby Goulder’s band (on stage but largely hidden from view by the set) are equally impressive, though the intimacy of the space at times means the vocals get overpowered by the music.
Occasionally bewildering and frequently ridiculous, Strike Up The Band is nevertheless always great fun. It does have darker undertones and, baseball caps or no baseball caps, it’s impossible to ignore how relevant the story still is. But it’s first and foremost a comedy, and makes an excellent (if long) evening’s entertainment – well worth waiting 90 years for.
Strike Up The Band is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 31st March.
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