New Yorkers Abe Burrows (Borowitz), Willie Gilbert (Gomberg) and Jack Weinstock did not invent the title of their 1961 musical satire on big business. It’s actually based on this best-selling lampoon of contemporary office life in 1950s USA, disguised as a self-improvement handbook. Clutching the book he consults on every step of the corporate ladder he climbs from window cleaner to chairman of the board, their anti-hero J Pierrepont Finch really lives up to the book’s subtitle, "The dastard's guide to fame and fortune". Burrows had worked with Frank Loesser on Guys and Dolls and the marriage of witty, amoral book with jaunty music and slick lyrics ensured the show’s award-winning success.
So what’s not to like? Amoral corporate greed and ruthlessness is a hardy perennial and even company boss, JB Biggley’s name sounds like a topical joke trumping the adverb coined by the businessman who won America ‘bigly’ himself. Well, time is a cruel master and the sensibilities of the 1960s don’t easily translate. Just as with Promises Promises, revived earlier this year, the sexism may be satirised, but it’s still hard to swallow. These gals with cinched-in waists emphasising their curves are reduced to wives-in-waiting, whiling away time as secretaries (and occasionally mistresses).
Pneumatic blonde, Hedy La Rue, a career ‘bit on the side’ played to the hilt by Lizzii Hills, does not share the ambition of Mad Men’s aspiring copywriters: it’s an LA perfume counter or marriage for her. And while Andrew C Wadsworth perfectly captures the cynical charm of Biggley himself, a fun creation who secretly knits for relaxation in his top-floor executive suite, Marc Pickering’s gleefully ruthless Finch is a real Richard III. Still, anti-heroes can be compelling and indeed Hannah Grover’s sunny Rosemary, the perfect secretary, manages to swallow her reservations and put her resourcefulness at his disposal, even as he puts his naked ambition before his love for her.
Director Benji Sperring’s almost cartoonish performing style works with the material, matched by Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography and Mike Lees’ pastiches of 60s corporate clothing, complete with wonderful fluorescent coloured shoes. Lee’s art deco design – steps leading to matching lift doors – provides an appropriate backdrop for the frenetic comings and goings of these stock characters. MD Ben Ferguson’s excellent small band ignites Loesser’s music, instantly appealing but not particularly memorable, with the exception of the now standard number 'I Believe in You'.
This is as fine a version of this collectors’ item as you are likely to see, a great showcase for its 10-strong cast and all involved, but maybe the catch is that a modern audience does not want to see the Finches of this world actually succeed in business without really trying.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Darren Bell
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs until Saturday 22 April. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). Wilton's Music Hall, E1 8JB. 020 7702 2789. www.wiltons.org.uk