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.
Welcome to Weismann’s Follies. Dmitri Weismann himself presides and the old gang of gorgeous gals are back for one last reunion in the theatre where they showed a leg and sang their hearts out between the wars, before it’s pulled down. It’s time to reminisce (cue for a song-list of glorious pastiches) and take stock of the ravages of the years – physical and emotional. So it’s equally the cue for a range of mould-breaking Sondheim numbers that excavate the regrets and neuroses eating away at the two couples centre-stage, former showgirls Sally and Phyllis and the stage-door johnnies, Buddy and Benjamin, whom they married. The genius of Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman is to intertwine and meld these two strands, building to a climax of ‘follies’ point numbers which become the expression of all that angst and heartache, one for each of the four, surprising, distinctive, appropriate and devastatingly revealing. The haunting of all the returnees by their younger selves, the girls in their gorgeous costumes and their stage door johnnies, acting out the past and observing their future, is another stroke of genius, another layer to this rich, complex show.
Musical theatre doesn’t need to be ground-breaking or stuffed full of numbers that go on to become ‘standards’ to be thoroughly enjoyable. What’s needed is a compelling story, an excellent ensemble and music and lyrics that move the plot along rather than holding up the action. Mrs Henderson Presents is just that – and it’s unashamedly and eccentrically British – with a Jewish protagonist sharing top honours for good measure.