Review: Ruthless! The Musical ★★★★ – Murder, mayhem and musical fun to die for

If backstage musicals featuring mothers who will stop at nothing are your bag, you’ll recognise and revel in this no-holds-barred, wildly over-the-top spoof of and homage to the genre. Think Gypsy, think All About Eve – Ruthless goes further, placing (ahem) centre-stage a would-be child star prepared to fight to the death (literally) for the title role in the school show. That the role is Pippi Longstocking in a musical featuring Astrid Lindgren’s famous child heroine is a delicious joke for some.

In fact Ruthless! is a ‘Marmite’ musical – lip-licking or nose-wrinkling, according to taste. It’s as clever as it is tasteless and Joel Paley’s book and lyrics with Marvin Laird’s music are often very clever indeed. Paley wears his heart on his sleeve by giving his women characters – yes, this is an all-girl affair, even if one of his monstrous regiment is played here with élan (and a killer wig) by performer/choreographer Jason Gardiner – names like Judy, Eve and Ginger. Paley admits to postponing his bar mitzvah to appear in a world premiere, so he knows of what he writes.

Although Paley sets the action in “a time not so different from our own”, Morgan Large’s glorious set and costume designs invoke the 1950s. Perfect (Stepford) wife and mother Judy Denmark and her scarily precocious brat Tina have cinched in waists, full skirts and a sugar-coloured flowery front room. Paley is also master of the running joke and sets up straightaway a great routine which has the wonderful Kim Maresca’s Judy answer a phone with an impossibly long cord, while multitasking on a succession of household chores. Young Tina is indeed a triple threat. She bursts onstage singing and dancing up a storm with her signature number, ‘I Was Born to Entertain’ (performed to perfection by Anya Evans, one of four real child stars who hopefully don’t see Tina as a role model).

Enter stage left Gardiner’s outrageous agent Sylvia St Croix, promising to make Tina’s dreams come true, whatever it takes. What it takes makes for an ever more outrageous plot, involving murder and escalating revelations – and a clutch of superb performances. Tracie Bennett is outstanding as glamorous grandmother and vicious theatre critic Lita Encore, a ballsy Lucille Ball figure in pencil skirt and of course killer heels, belting out the show’s funniest number, ‘I Hate Musicals’. Choreographer Rebecca Howell clearly revels in staging all Paley and Laird’s clever numbers and director Richard Fitch knows how to pace the fun.

Harriet Thorpe is perfect as no-nonsense headmistress Myrna Thorn, who injudiciously casts one Louise Lerman as Pippi and Tina as her dog – and understudy. Lara Denning turns in a pair of fine cameos as ill-fated Louise, whom nasty Tina deems “too Jewish to play Pippi”; and Eve, the nemesis her name suggests, who brings the action to a blood-stained conclusion. But not before Maresca’s Judy has her turn in the spotlight as Broadway’s brightest star, Ginger del Marco. Don’t ask how, but go and witness it for yourself if this sounds like it’s to your taste. Ruthless! is brash, bonkers and at times brilliant.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Alastair Muir

Ruthless! The Musical runs until Saturday 23 June. 7.45pm (Mon-Sat), 3.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £19.50. Arts Theatre, WC2H 7JB. 020 7836 8463. www.ruthlessthemusical.com