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A wooden hero and an unsung musical delight

    Stick Man 

    Leicester Square Theatre

    ★★★✩✩

     

    You may have had enough of the Gruffalo, who is rarely seen in deep, dark woods these days because he spends all his time hanging out with Peppa Pig on child-height shop shelves. And if squeezing on to a witch’s broom with no room only induces flashbacks to your most recent flight with Ryanair, then the antidote has to be the most blameless and hapless of Julia Donaldson’s characters, Stick Man, the boggle-eyed wooden fellow who strays from his family tree and nearly becomes kindling.

    Scamp Theatre energises the story with on-stage percussion and terrific incidental music performed by the show’s charismatic and often very funny cast of three.

    Santa’s Stick Man-saving descent down the chimney could have been handled more inventively, as could his flight over the rooftops, which slows the frenetic pace down to a dawdle. But the pathos generated by children’s literature’s most wooden hero since Pinocchio is enough to make you root for him.

    Recommended for those aged three and above, and good enough for the aboves to enjoy themselves as much as the threes.

     

    She Loves Me

    Menier Chocolate Factory

    ★★★★✩

     

    About a year ago, the Menier revived Funny Girl and, somewhat predictably, this musical theatre powerhouse made a huge success of it.

    I say predictably because much of this venue’s success is built upon taking a much-loved show and reminding us why we still love it. That’s not a criticism, David Babani’s Chocolate Factory has served up some of the sweetest offerings of my reviewing career. And just because he will generally — though not always — opt for a show that brings its own fan base to the box office, doesn’t detract from the sky-high standard to which they are staged and produced.

    This time though, the Menier has scattered its mojo on a show of little renown. And the result is once again an utter delight. Based on a Hungarian play by Miklós László, the musical premiered on Broadway in 1963, a year before its authors Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock unveiled their next, more famous work, Fiddler on the Roof.

    Compared to that show, this one doesn’t have a stand-out score that can exist as happily beyond the context of the musical as it does inside it. But the small-town, in-store story relating three relationships (book written by Joe Masteroff) and set in a Budapest perfumery is beautifully told by Matthew White’s production.

    Central is Mark Umbers as a lofty shop manager whose dislike of Summer Strallen’s new shop assistant Amalia suggests a love at second, possibly third or even fourth sight is in the offing. Then there is Katherine Kingsley’s sales clerk Ilona who habitually falls for cads such as her smooth colleague and nasty lover Steven (Dominic Tighe), while in his latest stage role Les Dennis is shop owner Mr Maraczek whose failing marriage turns the character into a kind of Scrooge.

    But there’s no Dickensian grime here. Rather, Paul Farnsworth’s design of the boutique interior is like the inside of a cut diamond. Rows of perfume bottles gleam like jewellery on glass shelves. Bock and Harnick’s witty songs manage to both wallow in and undermine the romance of the setting.

    There is even a critical, somewhat anti-consumerist undertow with the shop workers having to genuflect to their haughty punters to the point of submissiveness.

    This climaxes in the whirlwind number Twelve Days To Christmas when the punters greedily shop till they drop. It’s an observation that has since become a truism always trotted out about the so-called season of goodwill. Or, to borrow from the Harnick and Brock show that followed She Loves Me — a tradition.

     

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