Strike up the Band ★★★

The Marx Brothers meet Gilbert and Sullivan in the spookily topical Gershwin Brothers musical

Last week saw the American ambassador to the UK using strangely combative language in defence of US chlorine-washed chicken and yet another awkward love-in/stand-off between his current boss and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. So this 1927 collaboration between the Gershwin Brothers and Marx Brothers script writer George S Kaufman turns out to be uncomfortably topical satire. Hats off then to Alces Productions and director Mark Giesser for this timely revival, billed as a “musical fable of love, war and cheese”, which sticks to the biting wit of Kaufman’s book, rather than turning to a later, watered down romanticised version.

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Welcome to Hurray Connecticut, home of the American Cheese Company, whose strapline is: “Saving humanity through cheese”. ACC’s proud boast is that their product has a “subtle almost imperceptible flavour”. Jolly workers channel Gilbert and Sullivan as they start their day performing energetic callisthenics to sycophantic choruses in praise of cheese and company president Horace J Fletcher. Richard Emerson’s mad martinet conjures Trump from the get go with his strident signature number ‘Typical Self-Made American’. He even has his Ivanka – daughter and heir Joan – a formidable presence in Joan Beth Burrows’ spiky portrayal.

Unsurprisingly Fletcher and his establishment cronies welcome the US president’s proposed 50% tariff on imported cheese. And surprisingly, Fletcher manages to get his country to go to war when Switzerland protests against the tariff, by sponsoring the invasion of that haven of peace.

There’s enthusiastic backing too from socialite widow Mrs Draper, patron of the City Air Movement, “for country children who have never seen a night club and only get to eat fresh food”, who has Fletcher in her sights as husband number two. Although she’s cast in the mould of Marx Brothers’ stooge Margaret Dumont, Pippa Winslow eagerly seizes the opportunity the script offers to give her rather more nous.

Making love and war are her daughter Anne, Charlotte Christensen’s cute squeaky-clean all-American ingenue, and fresh-faced factory foreman turned soldier boy Timothy Harper (Adam Scott Pringle), who likes nothing better than to swing his gal in an energetic jive.

A solitary one-man band prepared to risk disgrace and ridicule by opposing the war is our conchie hero Jim Townsend. Paul Biggin’s resourceful Jim succeeds in representing the voice of reason without coming over as the straight man. He manages to woo a reluctant Joan, stand up to Fletcher and his cronies and turn ‘war hero’. This last he owes to the bonkers antics of comedy chameleon George Spelvin, who pops up in a succession of mad guises in a standout performance from David Francis, channelling all three Marx brothers at once. Oh, and did I mention the yodelling?

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See it for the quirky madcap wit of the plot and lyrics and the big brassy sound of MD Bobby Goulder’s six-strong band playing largely little known Gershwin. The jaunty title song will be familiar to many, though perhaps not the warlike lyrics and it’s a revealing treat to see much-loved Gershwin standard ‘The Man I Love’ in context.

The Gatehouse’s long narrow stage presents some problems focusing the action. I would have preferred to be able to see as well as hear the band, here obscured by screens first advertising American Cheese and then projecting Swiss Alps. With some judicious pruning (it runs at just over three hours with interval) this could be a must see.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Andreas Lambis

Strike Up the Band runs until Sunday 31 March. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 4pm (Sun only). £18-£20, £16-£18 concs. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, N6 4BD. 020 8340 3488.