Book by Neil Simon based on the screenplay The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Promises Promises is not The Oresteia it’s a musical comedy, yet this version runs just shy of 3 hrs. Yet another case one fears of Trevor Nunn’itis, where shows run 3hrs plus, when they could easily lose an hour and nobody would notice. Having said that this is a welcome and overdue revival of a tart and witty 60s hit, distinguished here by some wonderfully engaging performances.
Bacharach and David were at their peak as pop tunesmiths in 1968 when David Merrick engaged them and Neil Simon (also at his peak) to transform the classic Billy Wilder movie for the musical stage. It was their only sojourn in musicals and it brought such innovations to Broadway as smooth pop rhythms and backstage backing singers.
Those familiar with the film however will remember it as a dark if rather sardonic study of the corruption in American corporate life, not exactly musical comedy material and indeed here some of the musical numbers do jar.
The story centres on CC Baxter, a put-upon and morally diffident young insurance clerk who gains advancement at work by allowing his middle aged superiors to use his humble bachelor flat for their extramarital affairs. He gets the key to executive washroom in return for them time sharing the key to his pad, the problem being that ‘respectable girls would never go to a motel’.
Discovering this wheeze his boss the suave Mr Sheldrake (Paul Robinson) nabs exclusive use of the flat and CC then learns to his horror that Sheldrake has been using it for trysts with Fran, a girl with whom he himself is besotted.
Fans of ‘Mad Men’ will be very familiar with this emotional terrain. Simon’s script perfectly captures the spirit of the time, at the cusp of the sexual revolution, when male privilege and unchecked misogyny still ruled the day. It is interesting to hear a song like ‘Where Can You Take a Girl’ presented straight, for example.
‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ and the title song were the hits from the show but a lavish 2010 Broadway revival added ‘A House in Not a Home’ (which is not a fit) and ‘I Say A Little Prayer‘ which appears in the programme here but was actually pulled. Director Bronagh Lagan also commits the sin of killing the applause break for ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’, this production’s emotional show stopper.
Holding it all together is Gabriel Vick as Baxter. He elicits our sympathy in a number of witty asides and vocally, physically and emotionally is just perfect in the part. Daisy Maywood is affecting as Fran and channels some of Shirley MacLaine’s jaded ennui. Although she has a great voice she does over-egg the despair on ‘A House is Not a Home’.
Then there’s Marge, the good time girl CC encounters in a bar. In both Broadway productions the actress playing this God’s Gift of a role won the Tony and here, Alex Young commits comic grand larceny with it. John Guerrasio too, hilariously deploys Simon’s zippy repartee as the Jewish doctor from next door who comes to Fran’s rescue.
The production is lavish, for here, and Southwark Playhouse must again be commended for their ambition. On first night however Simon Wells’ set misbehaved – a huge door clanged, a screen failed to descend and Joe Louis Robinson’s band was too loud for where it was placed. The arrangements and playing though were top class.