With its stellar writing team – music and lyrics Burt Bacharach and Hal David, book Neil Simon (based on Billy Wilder’s screenplay for hit comedy The Apartment) – this musical set in early 60s New York is as lovable and eager to be loved as any pedigree pup. It boasts a hero of self-deprecating charm in Chuck Baxter, insurance company junior and wannabe executive dining room key holder. Happily for Chuck, he already holds the keys to a Manhattan studio apartment, discreet walking distance from the office. Jaded middle-aged senior executives aspire to these keys to happiness in their turn for the odd hour’s dalliance with their very personal assistants before they go home to their wives. Chuck seems to hold the keys to his own advancement – the promises are the promotion his superiors offer in return.
Chuck’s problem is Fran, the girl of his dreams (dreams shared with the audience in ‘confidential’ asides) who waits in that dining room. She turns out to be the long-term squeeze of the all-important personnel director Sheldrake, who wants exclusive use of Chuck's apartment in return for promotion.
In Gabriel Vick, director Bronagh Lagan has found the perfect Chuck, as appealing as he is talented. But there’s a potential problem with this period piece. The show is self-knowing, necessarily considering its central premise to be droll, whereas to dissenters (post-feminist perhaps) it is, frankly, seedy. Given that back in the aptly-named swinging 60s everyone was apparently at it – think Mad Men – why the problem? I think it’s because the girls have so little voice here. Definitely not on top (except possibly in bed), they are secretaries teetering smartly on their heels in the wake of their bosses, taking letters, keeping diaries, exchanging favours (presumably also for advancement) – and backing songs. At first most numbers are sung by the guys – often by Chuck himself. Happily, you do eventually get to hear from Daisy Maywood’s Fran, who manages to combine fragility and vulnerability with a voice of glorious power and subtlety. It almost justifies the interpolated hit, A House is not a Home, which doesn't quite fit into the action, but who cares when you get to hear Maywood’s rendition.
Elsewhere Alex Young suggests she is destined for stardom with a delicious turn as Marge – up for Christmas cheer with Chuck, whom she picks up in a bar. Plus all those sassy secretaries turn in great performances with archly exaggerated body language in Cressida Carré’s spot-on choreography and designer Simon Wells’s matching period frocks. Given the unusual chorus of middle-aged lotharios and Paul Robinson’s excellently unappealing and unfeeling Sheldrake, Lagan at any rate is aware of the story’s ambiguity, as indeed is that writing team.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Claire Bilyard
Promises, Promises runs until Saturday 18 February, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Sat & some weekdays), £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. 020 7407 0234. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk