By Zephy Losey
‘How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ is not the best-known musical and – with very few catchy, upbeat numbers to pull an audience in – the Collingwood Woodplayers had their work cut out for them to put on a crowd-pleaser. Some great performances from lead characters combined with clever staging, as well as the rapturous applause at the show’s end, would suggest they were successful. With this said, there were quite a few problems with the production; technical issues, musical flaws and frequently poor acting, just to name a few. However many of these imperfections are easily rectifiable and might be attributable to opening night jitters.
The first thing that struck me about this production was the high quality of the costumes and set. Credit should go to the costume designer Harriet Billington for the many wonderful outfits that managed to all be individual yet work perfectly as an ensemble. Complementing colour pallets and the odd well-placed bow gave the chorus a polish and togetherness which they sadly lacked in other aspects of the production. Similarly, the versatile set that transitioned seamlessly from office tables to a bathroom sink had clearly been well thought out by the producer. A mention should also be made about the elevator at the back of the stage, which was unexpectedly impressive and enabled many comic moments in the play. While on the subject of the set, it is regrettable to say the stagehands often detracted from what was happening on the stage. For some reason they were all wearing white shirts, which meant that they were clearly visible in blackouts and the audience could see their frantic movements, mistakes and blunders throughout. They also had a tendency to come on too soon, with the lights still up. This put the audience in the uncomfortable position of feeling like the actors should have left the stage or that the tech had failed and there should have been a blackout. The lighting also had moments of weakness, where only the centre of the stage was visible in a soft wash, making the action on the extremities of the stage difficult to see in the dark.
The show’s greatest strength lay in the lead characters, particularly the males. Louis Mayo, who played Bud Frump, had far and away the best comic timing in the cast, keeping the audience in stitches with his expressive eyes and numerous asides. Similarly Nathan Chatelier as J. B. Biggley did a great job with his physicality and managed to strike a good balance between dictatorial boss and sympathetic man in an unhappy marriage. Nevertheless the stand-out performance has to be Arthur Lewis who played the male lead, Finch. His vocals were head and shoulders above the rest of the cast and he maintained the best energy on stage, winning over of the audience with his charisma. The female leads were also good, with Meg Duffy and Anna Chambers playing their parts well, though without anything particularly memorable. The strongest female was undoubtedly Lily Edwards, as Smitty, whose endlessly entertaining facial expressions and rich vocals captivated the audience every time she was on stage.
If the central cast was the highlight, the lowlight was definitely the chorus. Sadly, all too often we were given blank faced, dead eyed chorus members who seemed to have forgotten entirely that they were on a stage. This was particularly noticeable in dance numbers when many members of the cast stared at their feet throughout and we could practically see them trying to remember their steps. For relatively simple choreography this was disappointing. There were many timing issues, meaning the dance numbers lacked synchronicity and sharpness. Many moves where repeated a few too many times – Meg Duffy was particularly prone to this, putting her left hand out in the same manner evey time she sang – which would have been fine if they had been done cleanly but this was not the case for most of the show. The small tap number at the start of the television broadcast was definitely the best dance in the show! There was a general lack of uniformity among the chorus and it at times seemed the actors had been left to do what they wanted in scenes, unsure where to look or what expression to show. Some very unsteady music queues, particularly from the boys, took away from the otherwise strong musical element of the show. The band were admirable, though they seemed more adept at the slower songs than the bigger musical numbers.
On the whole the Woodplayers put on a good show, which, with a few bits of tidying, could be a great production. I’m sure by Saturday night they will have ironed out many of the kinks that somewhat impeded my personal enjoyment of the show.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman