I walk into a Soho room where a new sweet-sounding musical about Phyllis Pearsall, who wrote the A-Z — the London street guide, not the alphabet — is being rehearsed. But then somebody says “filthy Jew”. Now I’m thinking maybe this musical is not so sweet. But all eventually becomes clear as I talk to the show’s book writer, Diane Samuels, and two of its stars, Isy Suttie (Pearsall) and Frances Rufelle, who plays Pearsall’s “emotionally fragile” Catholic mother.
All three could have the phrase “best known for” attached to their names. In the case of Samuels, it is for her terrific play Kindertransport, a revival of which is currently on tour. The Tony Award-winning Ruffelle is best known for creating the role of Éponine in the original London and Broadway production of Les Miserables. Suttie’s greatest recognition is for Channel 4’s Peep Show in which she plays Dobby, aka “the geeks’ dream girlfriend”. Mind you, Suttie’s talents have to be seen on stage to be fully appreciated. She sings and plays guitar during her whimsical stand-up sets. It’s perhaps a little surprising that this is her first musical.
Suttie’s eponymous Mrs P was the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant (played by Michael Matus) who arrived in London 1900. “He came from a Jewish family to seek his fortune. It’s a classic story of Jewish immigration and enterprise,” explains Samuels during a rehearsal lunch break. But at the moment Suttie, Ruffelle and the rest of the cast are working on an early scene during which Mrs P walks the streets of London collecting the data that will eventually end up in 26 boxes filled with street names, each one marked with a letter from the alphabet, which is how the guide got its title.
Pearsall decided to create maps of London after getting lost on her way to a dinner party in Maida Vale, so the legend goes. It also says that in 1936 she got up at 5am every morning to research the project, apparently walking 3,000 miles in total. According to the show’s creators, who include composer and lyricist Gwyneth Herbert, a lot was happening in London then. The BBC made its first broadcast from Alexandra Palace, Edward VIII abdicated and London’s Jewish East End was consumed by riots as Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts attempted to march through Tower Hamlets, which is where the cry of “filthy Jew” comes in. Pearsall would have known about, and possibly even witnessed, these events as she went on her fact-finding walks.
Herbert counts in Suttie to the song Lovely London Town, a love letter to the capital. “I claim every road, I know every street,” sings Suttie tenderly. “I plot out my route, I stand on my feet. For this is my time — my lovely London Town.”
It’s still early in rehearsals, but under the direction of Sam Buntrock the cast is already sure-footedly marrying movement to music. As the song progresses, Suttie and the cast weave their way through a line of suitcases that also represent the boxes in which Pearsall stored her research.
Anyone who lived in or visited the capital before the era of GPS map-reading has A-Z memories. That’s the clever thing about this show.
“Back in the day, when I was nine or 10, I was doing modelling in London and earning my school fees,” Ruffelle recalls. “My A-Z used to get me around Soho where all the castings were. God, you wouldn’t let your child out like that these days would you.”
So I ask if her pop star daughter Eliza (Doolittle) was let loose on London at the age? “No way,” replies Rufelle, who has lost none of the impish good looks that got her those modelling jobs. This is just as well as she has to play a character whose age goes from 15-45.
Samuels is the only one here who still uses her old dog-eared A-Z. But Suttie also has fond memories of the book. “I use the map on my phone instead,” she says. “But in my old A-Z, the pages of the West End always had highlighter from auditions I’d gone to and stuff. It was like a diary.”
Now living in Crystal Palace, Suttie has thought of herself as a Londoner ever since she left her Derbyshire home to take up a drama school place in Guilford. Isn’t Guilford beyond even the big A-Z that takes in the suburbs. “I know,” she shrugs. “But to me it was London.”
Ruffelle notes that “when we’re talking about the A-Z I think of the Jewish part of my family. We all think we know the right way to go. Maybe it’s a Jewish gene.”
The Jewish part of Rufelle’s family is on her mother Sylvia’s side. That’s Sylvia Young, founder of the eponymous stage school. Young’s love of theatre was sparked by her opera-loving grandmother after whom Frances was named. I suggest that Ruffelle must be more at home doing musicals than everyone else in the cast , what with her track record on Broadway and the West End and her solo cabaret show.
“I’ve been brought up on musicals, so I am in my comfort zone in that sense,” she admits. “But you’re never in your comfort zone when you’re starting a new project. If I was to feel that confident about it then I probably wouldn’t be any good.
Although she plays Suttie’s mother, out of character and costume they could not be more different. Like the comedian she is, Suttie spontaneously makes comedy material out of how doing a musical for the first time makes her feel. “I don’t feel any more nervous than I would about anything else,” she says. “I do music in my stage stuff so it feels like it’s in the same family, if that makes sense.
Samuels is the biggest surprise on the question of comfort zones. Best known — that phrase again — as writer of straight plays, musicals are “like coming home. “It feels completely like I’ve found my element,” she says of this subtly very Jewish project (the producer is Neil Marcus, the director of Mercury Musical Developments, who thought of turning Pearsall’s story into a show).
So it’s not, erm, slightly dated at all, now that mostly everyone uses Google maps to get around — apart from Samuels. The writer bristles slightly at the suggestion.
“First of all, what you think is a story about mapping a city is really a story about a family. It’s really an emotional journey that the audience won’t expect. The other thing is the A-Z is one of the iconic brands of the 20th century. So the show gives you an insight into something you think you know about but don’t. So it’s not about whether or not we have sat nav. It’s about how we find our way in life.”