Review: Strike Up The Band at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

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.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

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.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Crazy For You at the Orchard Theatre

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical Crazy For You has everything: singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, romance, mistaken identities… and – as if all that weren’t enough – former Strictly winner, and now well established stage star, Tom Chambers as main character Bobby Child.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Bobby wants to be on the stage, but his wealthy mother’s bullied him into working at the family bank instead, and demands he go to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on an old theatre. Thrilled to get away from Irene, the fiancée he acquired five years ago seemingly by accident, Bobby arrives in Deadrock and falls immediately in love with Polly – whose dad, unfortunately, happens to be the owner of the theatre. Desperate to save the theatre and win Polly’s love, Bobby comes up with a half-baked plan to pretend he’s theatre impresario Bela Zangler, and chaos, predictably enough, ensues.

Tom Chambers lives up to his leading man credentials from the moment the curtain rises, tapping and twinkling his way through the first couple of New York-set numbers. Then the action moves to Deadrock, and any concerns that this might just be the Tom Chambers show are put quickly to rest as an exceptional company of actor-musicians step into the spotlight. Claire Sweeney is great as the bitchy Irene, who (naturally) follows her man across the country and messes with his plan – as does a confused Zangler, in an entertaining comedic turn by Neil Ditt. But biggest shout-out of the night has to go to Seren Sandham-Davis, who stepped confidently into the role of Polly in the unexpected absence of regular star Charlotte Wakefield, and smashed it.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

The score is largely familiar, with classic tunes like I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Embraceable You and Someone To Watch Over Me. But there are also plenty that were new to me, with highlights including Stiff Upper Lip, an enjoyably silly celebration of all things British led by Eugene and Patricia Fodor (who just happen to stumble into town doing research for their latest travel guide), and the irresistible toe-tapper Slap That Bass. The immaculate choreography from Nathan M. Wright is particularly impressive given that most of the cast are also playing a variety of instruments at the same time.

Full of charisma and glamour, Crazy For You is a perfect evening’s entertainment, full of laughs, romance and catchy tunes. Tom Chambers excels in the spotlight, but even he can’t outshine a ridiculously multi-talented ensemble cast who seem able to do pretty much anything. The story is all very silly, and I still don’t quite understand how it all came together at the end – but when a show is this much fun, who cares if it makes sense?

Crazy For You is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 27th January then continuing on tour.