The Spitfire Grill

Music & book by James Valcq, lyrics & book by Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
Union Theatre

Belinda Wollaston as Percy Talbott Credit: Darren Bell
Natalie Law as Shelby Thorpe, Hilary Harwood as Hannah Ferguson and Belinda Wollaston as Percy Talbott Credit: Darren Bell
Chris Kiely as Sheriff Joe Stutter, Natalie Law as Shelby Thorpe, Hilary Harwood as Hannah Ferguson, Katie Brennan as Effy Krayneck and Belinda Wollaston as Percy Talbott Credit: Darren Bell

Yet another musical based on a movie: a 1996 movie written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff that I had never heard of, though it apparently won an award that year at Sundance.

Valcq and Alley’s 2001 collaboration, which changes the plot line, opened off-Broadway in 2001. It was seen on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 but this is its UK professional première.

An old magazine photo of autumn russet woodland makes Perchance Talbot, a prisoner on parole, go to Gilead in the Wisconsin backwoods. By-passed by a new interstate, its quarry closed, it’s now a run-down dump but Joe Stutter, the sheriff she reports to, finds her a room and a job at the Spitfire Grill.

Perchance is awkwardly inept, the townsfolk don’t like her, but when Hannah Ferguson, the diner’s aging owner, has a fall, “Percy”, as the older woman has dubbed her, wins her support and then that of Shelby, wife of Hannah’s nephew Caleb.

For years, since her son was reported missing in Vietnam and the death of her husband, Hannah’s been trying to sell the diner. Now Percy suggests she runs a competition lottery with a $100 entry fee, the winner the one chosen for the best essay on why they want to have the Spitfire Grill.

It doesn’t sound a particularly toe-tapping scenario but it won the 2001 Richard Rodgers Production Award from a panel chaired by Stephen Sondheim and this production show you why: it is delightful and, though you may think it is going to be pretty predictable, there are unexpected twists to the story.

The loud clang of a cell door and a silence in darkness take the place of an overture before an opening number in which Belinda Wollaston’s Percy counts the days of her incarceration and dreams of a place for a new start.

This isn’t a musical packed with pop songs and show tunes. The songs are part of the storytelling smoothly integrated with a gentle folk influence and an almost operatic treatment in the way they colour in the narrative and elaborate phrases. From individual arias to a complex sextet involving all the characters except a silent outsider, they are beautifully crafted.

Unamplified, with a band under musical director Simon Holt made up of piano, accordion and guitarist, Alastair Knight’s production exploits the intimacy of the Union to great advantage.

Wollaston is an excellent Percy, carrying much of the show to begin with, her damaged character gaining empathy as she begins to blossom. Hilary Harwood’s Hannah is an equally strong performance, a gruff exterior hiding hurt and humanity, and Natalie Law brings warmth to her Shelby, support for “wild bird” Percy.

Katie Brennan is prying gossip Effy, Hans Rye unhappy Caleb trying to sell real estate no one want since his quarry job caved in and Chris Kelly the sheriff who finds himself drawn to Percy who seems to bring change to all their lives as they read other people’s ideas of what life in Gilead could be like, with a song celebrating “The Colours of Paradise”.

This is a fine team in a musical that combines all its elements to make effective theatre. This production is beautifully matched to its venue, a great demonstration of less being more and well worth a trip to Union Street.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton