Frank's Closet

Music and Lyrics by Stuart Wood
Hoxton Hall
(2009)

Described as 'a Music Hall Musical' this is a show that couldn't be more perfectly placed than in Hoxton Hall, purpose built as a music hall in 1863 and one of Britain's five relatively complete survivors of the old-style supper-room. It is not that it is a music hall bill in the traditional sense - it's a modern musical, but it closely reflects music hall traditions and celebrates a succession of divas from Marie Lloyd, the queen of the halls right through to ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog.

The framing is a rather skeletal plot of a young man about to be married clearing our all the frocks in his closet and at the same time facing up to being himself. With a band that often swamps the singers and, for some reason, an en travestie Frank whose consonant-reduced American version of what might have been cockney was often incomprehensible in spoken dialogue, I was uncertain whether it was a straight marriage he was getting cold feet about because he really loved a guy called Allan or whether it was a civil-partnership with Allan that he was having second thoughts about.

In a small hall that is said to have an excellent acoustic was there really a need for amplification anyway? Perhaps my particular position in the first gallery didn't help, for Miss Donna King, who is a spirited performer who reached moments of Miss Liza Minnelli-like show-biz vitality, was clearly getting her laughs from some better placed parts of the audience.

While playing Frank en travestie echoed the music hall tradition and, in the opening sequence in a top-hat doubling as a song-room chairman, the impression is of a Vesta Tilley-like Burlington Bertie, which confuses any gay politics message in the gender bending, for Frank is not a girl throwing her tailcoats out of the wardrobe but a young man leaving the closet and ditching his female glad rags and it doesn't match up to the fact that the frocks (which end up in a crate destined for the V & A Theatre Collections) all represent divas - who are wonderfully performed by the talented Mr Carl Mullaney. He is performer whose range takes in Julie Andrews, Ethel Merman, Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland as well as Miss Lloyd and Miss Faltskog - and I'm sure there are more in his repertoire than this one act entertainment had time for.

"If the world were a Music Hall and I were a song," sings Frank, and Mr Stuart Wood's infectious numbers have the liveliness of the old tradition and are performed with great brio by his cast. Mr Mullaney would steal the show were it not for the enthusiastic energy of them all. There is little space at Hoxton for a line of chorus girls but Miss Debbie McGee, Miss Portia Emare and Mr David Furnell (sporting a gravelly voice and a very ample bust) have the energy of thrice their number and are dazzlingly joined by the bare-chested dancing duo of Messrs Bruno Serravallo and Clio Souza Oliveira who are a cross between Chipperfields and Mae West's support team.

Ian Burton's direction keeps things lively and, with lavish costumes and a setting by Catherine Phelps that suggests a toy theatre redrawn by John Minton, this is a thoroughly enjoyable seventy minutes (without interval). It didn't matter if I sometimes lost the plot or missed a lyric: the whole is much more than its parts. From the smoky opening with (near) naked bodies embracing on the stage as fairies wave electric wands and a top-hatted gent and lady descend to join them to the tinsel confetti of its ending, this is a celebration of delicious high camp rather than crusading gay lib. The first night audience clearly enjoyed it as much as I did and would probably have encored the whole show if they had been given the chance.

Until 25th July 2009

Howard Loxton