Jolly hockey sticks and broken hearts

Crush

Coventry Belgrade

****

WHAT response should we have to Crush? Do we weep? Empathise? Gnash our teeth? Chortle uncontrollably? Or just settle back in our seats and  . . . enjoy?

Crush is the spanking new musical with a heart-warming story from Maureen Chadwick (remember Earl’s Park FC and ITV’s Footballers’ Wives - or the BBC’s Waterloo Road (all ten series))

The lyrics - that’s the texts of the enchantingly off the wall songs - come from Kath Gotts, who also provided, or sometimes cobbled together, the music. Kath wrote the music and lyrics for Bad Girls the Musical which played for a spell at London’s Garrick Theatre after a terrific spell at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Bad Girls - and there are few here, though our sympathies are always with them - need careful controlling. Enter Crush’s super director, Anna Linstrum  (Spend Spend, Spend picked up Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards), who has teamed with choreographer Richard Roe to produce, visually, a wild swelter of delight. 

Why crush? Well, it’s set largely in a girls’ school, from which two of the gals elope to Piccadilly Circus and glitzy London when a ghastly new headmistress jetted in by the governors (the amazingly competent, ably controlling Rosemary Ashe) decides to roll back a liberal regime at a ludicrously named college (Dame Dorotheabad girl Dosserdale School) for toff young ladies, and sets off to sniff out any necking behind the bike sheds (yes, it can befall schoolgirls, and these particular belles - all eight on the hockey team here, wenches actually aged 20-plus - are so masterfully convincing they look disturbingly like jailbait).

Besides, this was 1963 or 64, and even in StephenWard’s day teen pashes simply officially weren’t on

Girls being girls at Dame Dorothea Dosserdale's seat of learning

What is it that makes Crush at the Belgrade so crackingly good? Musically it’s the jaunty, positive delivery, arguably, more than the enjoyable enough but occasionally corny numbers (we get 20, a good haul, and with nods to West Side Story etc. they zip along like a wild Ronnie Scott’s soirée): Helen Ireland oversees, and her pacing is pretty much spot-on; several of the numbers are beautifully managed scherzos, really gutsy, and they impact admirably. Steven Edis’s arrangements are limited by the size and instrumentation of the ensemble: one would have died for a touch of woodwind (though saxes and clarinet are there), or more varied colouring.

Yet it works: with sequences like the hockey stick-brandishing Navy Knicks (you get the idea), I Know It’s Asking a Lot and Do Your Bit  (a bit like Vera Lynn’s hit There’ll Always Be An England), not to mention the Head’s well-intended diatribe The future mothers of the future sons of England (‘the breeders of our breeders yet to come...’.,. ‘We strive to educate so you may better procreate’: she could have fought World War II single-handed, but on which side is not clear) there was a Belgrade houseful of very satisfied punters. 

Ashe’s heavy-spectacled, tight twin-setted head (oh-so-predictable bottle green) is of course pure pastiche, like the Head in The History Boys. So are the scenes where the two lovers abscond to the metropolis, only to have their mutual yearnings dissolved by the entry of a (seemingly) older man (James Meunier, funny and quite effective in several roles: ‘I tried Buddhism last year; discovered that orange just isn’t my colour’) - even in a deliberately ropy (though possibly of its time) - Marlene Dietrich spoof.

So the delightful, more confident than she seems Susan (Stephanie Clift) and feisty, can’t-pronounce her Rs Camilla (Charlotte Miranda-Smith) - the two darkened Art Room luvvies - hot news whenever they were on, and breathtakingly gorgeous in Gotts’s love duet Totally, Utterly, Truly (‘Truly-Madly-Deeply?’) - fall apart, and tentative Susan falls back on the lovely, neglected Daimler (Brianna Ogunbawo), who touchingly yearned for love, but didn’t dare ask for it. It’s all scrumptiously honest; and surely all the more, still relevant.

While passion for, or at least bonding with, each other, and loathing for their ghastly tormentress (Ashe) forges an all-girls-onboard coalition, there’s one rotten apple who (of course) threatens to steal the show: Brenda (Georgia Oldman), a nasty little sneak - measly little shit, in fact (‘I’ve never been behind the bike sheds’  - top in science, but ‘I’m rubbish on the hockey pitch’ (presumably netball and lacrosse too) hence she - accurately - feels outcast) - who sucks up to Miss Bleacher (the cold shower-favouring head, who pounds out her own wondrously delivered, rather poignant penultheadimate number, I Ask For Nothing) in an odious pursuit of promotion. Brenda becomes the class spy and pariah, and produces such a hilarious, pouty solo performance (one brilliantly engineered, NHS-bespectacled, turn after another) - that we’re almost tempted to join the opposition.

Sara Crowe as Miss Austin, Georgia Oldman as Brenda, James Meunier, as Dorian the school handyman and Rosemary Ashe as the head

Brenda is on permanent extra adrenaline (and Chadwick’s script allots her delicious fast-flowing venom to spew out, a kind of patter at which she positively glistens). Mostly Charlotte Miranda-Smith (‘When my mother was an art student she was probably hallucinating on absinthe’) carries the show, but Oldman runs her close.  

Sara Crowe’s empathetic, red-stockinged P. E. Teacher, Miss Austin, I think an Old Girl who knows how things work (‘Isn’t it the hallowed function of the Art Room to provide outlet for self-expression?’), and who was attached to the old regime (Dame Dorothea, the old/founding head, sounds like a cross between Miss Marple and Miss Froth in the Girl comic) - and is duly sacked - has an important role in helping these fifth/sixth formers through their Angsts and agues.

Perhaps her character could be beefed up a bit. But then there is - I submit - a wee, or not so wee, problem with the show; the time taken up at the start of Part 2 (in London) gradually becomes gratuitous, and arguably irrelevant. It’s fun, because we run through a series of events and accidents (starting from the superbly moved ‘Hello London’) that even suggest the frenetic world of Expressionism - Brecht or Kaiser - but it adds too little, and meanwhile the time it takes up leaves the remaining school characters undeveloped. It’s one of those good ideas that is delightfully colourful yet doesn’t really help.

But you can’t help but marvel at the teamwork - these brilliantly cast girls really know how to move, pinpoint-slick, and their early numbers not least are wonderfully tuneful and cutting - and for that the credit goes totally to director and (especially) choreographer.

Crush (added credit to Big Broad Productions for its inception along with co-producers Coventry Belgrade) is a show with a huge tender heart that should clearly embark on a long, triumphant UK tour. The set (David Farley) is appealing too - it might be sharpened (a hint of the amateur in school facade and interior: rolled-out pegs and cubicles, desk used a bit statically - but that too may be wry and intended). It was helped massively by Johanna Town’s lighting (Daniel Street is the Lighting’s programmer), which looked painstakingly worked out - especially picking out Susan above the River Thames as, jilted, she contemplates suicide - and cleverly varied (just one spot, curiously enough as it moved across Camilla, missed its mark). 

Especial fun is the dénouement, , like an Agatha Christie finale, in which everyone seems to be outwitting and outmanoeuvring everyone else, until - yes - spying Brenda at last comes up with the goods.

Crush runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry till Sat 19 Sept; then Theatre Royal, Brighton Tues 22-Sat 26 Sept; and the Richmond Theatre Tues 29 Sept-Sat 3 Oct.

www.bigbroad.co.uk/productions/crush-the-musical

Roderic Dunnett

08-09-15 

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