An attack of the knowing giggles

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“So let me get this straight,” says a father confessor towards the end of Act One: “You’re an adulterer who’s moved in with his unfaithful wife’s non-monogamous lover?” He gives the penitent Tom some Hail Marys and Our Fathers, then goes off for a drink. I know how he felt, and he didn’t even have to face the songs that propel this two-hour piece.

The off-Broadway relationship musical is an over-subscribed genre, at least on the basis of those instances that cross the Atlantic . . . and we must reckon those to be the hardier specimens. Every writing team wants to create the new Closer Than Ever or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The latter show was written by Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro, but lightning has not struck twice for the writing team with their stage musicalisation of Doris Dörrie’s 1985 German comedy film Männer.

The opening number assures us that we are not about to see a conventional love story, but it does so in such a bouncy way that we are in little doubt things will end as happily for the central characters as they ever did for Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Tom (a commanding Hal Fowler) may be pre-psychotic in his scheme to keep tabs on his wife’s lover by pseudonymously becoming his flatmate; he may inexplicably find a gorilla mask in the flat’s kitchen, with which he can disguise himself when his wife first visits; he may be proud of his materialism as a senior advertising executive; but we know that his heart is in the right place. And gosh, not only does he accidentally hit upon a way of loosening his wife’s grip on lover Sebastian by effectively turning him from a boho artist into a clone of Tom himself (in Dörrie’s movie the stratagem is deliberate), but he ends up best buddies with the guy into the bargain. Oh, and of course there are a few coy references to homoeroticism but it is all dismissed as soon as mentioned: just an occasion for a knowing giggle.

Knowing giggles are the show’s downfall. Everything about it is self-conscious: the opening number, the convention by which all roles except the central husband/wife/lover trio are played by one frantically doubling woman and one even more frenzied man (I particularly liked Paul Baker as a Mexican cabbie), and, above all, the pervading air that this is just a bit of a yarn with a few tunes, nothing to get too wrapped up in.

And so we don’t. (My companion certainly didn’t; she left at the interval.) Then, little by little, a number of us stop laughing with it and start laughing at it. This is not so difficult when DiPietro writes lyrics such as: “There is a man, and we’ll call him Tom/ Because that’s his name, as given by mom”, or “Oh, there’s a road that I hear calling/ And though that road I find appalling/ I’ll take my ass and I’ll start hauling”. We know the words are supposed to be on the silly side, but these are on the Lower East Silly Side.

Anthony Drewe has a long and accomplished career both as a lyricist and as a director of comedy musicals, and takes the right tack in his production here. But, partly due to the material and partly because staging a musical on the King’s Head’s postage-stamp stage seems, at best, an act of parody in itself, the evening slips from his control. Still, it could have been worse, to judge by reviews of another American musical currently on the London stage: it could have been The Thing About Menopause.
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