Acorn Antiques The Musical
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
The long-awaited and heavily advertised Acorn Antiques The Musical! has finally arrived. The good news for the British is that this is genuinely a celebration of home-grown talent. The actors are English (well, most of them: there is Welshman Gareth Bryn), so is the director, Sir Trevor Nunn. Even the subject matter, risqué comedy about the inhabitants of an English village that cannot have changed in the last fifty years, is quintessentially and rather dottily our very own.
Many people will know what to expect before they even buy their tickets. Victoria Wood's anti-soap opera has been successful on television to the extent that people chuckle at its name. The idea that Julie Walters' wonderful Mrs Overall, Celia Imrie's haughty Miss Babs and Duncan Preston's less than positive Mr Clifford are appearing on stage together will appeal.
The first note of warning is that those who are expecting to see Victoria Wood in her customary position as lovelorn Miss Berta will be disappointed. Indeed, if you turn up on a Monday night or Wednesday matinee, you will have the chance to see the writer but playing Mrs Overall, at the expense of Miss Walters.
Acorn Antiques The Musical! falls into three phases, the first of which struggles to provide anything original. It is a classic tale of a megalomaniacal but unsuccessful theatre director, played by Neil Morrissey looking like a cross between Sir Trevor and Jesus. He rants on about his desire to turn Acorn Antiques into a post apocalyptic holocaust of a play in which the whole street is demolished, together with its residents.
Things improve when our heroine rolls up and decides to rescue the show. Her goal is to provide some "old numbers lashed together with terrible bits of plot". From there until the end of the show, musical pastiche is the name of the game so that we get hordes of miserable Frenchmen dying on the barricades followed by romantic songs from the Cafe Continental.
The show really gets into its stride after the interval when we are welcomed into Manchesterford, quaint home to Acorn Antiques, the bumbling little shop run by a pair of spinsters and a man suffering from amnesia.
The plot is pure comic fantasy and none the worse for that. The developers are coming in to turn the High Street into a cornucopia of coffee shops with the odd offering of sexy underwear and a sinister loan shark dressed like John Travolta. In no time at all, our innocent antique dealers are faced with closure and conversion into a coffee shop.
Their only chance of rescue comes from the videotaped will of their late father, played by Ronnie Corbett. He sets them off on a trail that requires the discovery of their lost triplet sister, a coffee mini-tycoon played by Josie Lawrence, their equally lost mother, inevitably Mrs Overall, and at the last, a race against the clock in a TV style game show. In the last, they are assisted by a pair of Pitiful Adolescents, perhaps Miss Wood's finest creation for the stage show.
All of this is done with great charm and some routine song and dance, shown at its strongest in Tip Top Tap. The best of the musical offerings all feature Sally-Anne Triplett who takes over Miss Wood's part as Miss Berta. She is a regular musical star whose singing and dancing talents make her a good foil for Celia Imrie as Miss Babs. The latter is a fine comic character actress who is not at her best singing. Sir Trevor does well in juggling these two to the best effect.
The real star of the show without any doubt though is Julie Walters. She is helped by the fact that it takes no more than a stagger to get the audience chuckling madly. She has far more to offer in this comic role and brings the house down delivering a song about sex, scandal and cakes; to applause and cheering that delayed the opening of the following scene.
Acorn Antiques The Musical! might well be a West End success and if it is, it will enrich all concerned. You need to be a fan to spend up to £65 for each ticket and realistically, unless the running time can be cut even further from its current three hours (it started at three-and a-half), some more general viewers, for example tourists who do not know the TV show, may not think that it is worth the effort. However, with millions of TV viewers on tap to fill the theatre, this may not matter. The world loves "undemanding middlebrow entertainment" - obviously their words, not ours.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher