Victor/Victoria, Southwark Playhouse, London

As Victor/Victoria is in large part about resilience, ingenuity and triumph against the odds, it seems appropriate that that is also the abiding impression of this production. This is not a brilliant musical, never quite living up to its own billing. It is set in the 1930s Paris nightclub scene, deals with sexual identity and transvestism, and one of its characters is a Chicago gangster, yet somehow Blake Edwards’ book and Henry Mancini’s pleasant but often rather bland musical numbers render the scenario less dark, subtle and exciting than it should be.

But it is hard to resist Thom Sutherland’s vivid and inventive staging. Sutherland and his designer, Martin Thomas, turn the space into a cabaret club, with performers joining audience members at their tables and entertaining them with tap dance routines and magic tricks. It creates a good-humoured, laissez-faire atmosphere and sets the tone for a story that focuses on the gutsy wiliness of two down-on-their-luck singers striking on an idea and giving it all they’ve got.

Those two are Toddy, an impoverished gay nightclub singer, and Victoria, a starving soprano. When fate throws them together, Toddy realises that Victoria would look great as a man. From there the idea of Victor is born: a Polish count and female impersonator. It works: soon Victor is wowing le tout Paris – including King Marchand (Matthew Cutts), a visiting Chicago mobster, who is disturbed to find himself fancying what appears to be a man.

There’s an element of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night here: Victor’s multi-layered identity causes erotic confusion and upsets people’s assumptions about their sexuality. In a touching sub-plot, Marchand’s bruising bodyguard (Michael Cotton), inspired by events, suddenly reveals himself to be gay. But you can’t help feeling there should be something darker and more edgy about a story dealing in desire and set at a time when to be gay could put you in real danger (the rumours of Marchand’s infatuation bring a heavy-handed visit from his mob). The central theme throughout, after all, is the pain of living a lie.

It is delivered with terrific brio, however, by the cast, and Lee Proud’s fabulous choreography raises the tempo and the temperature. The two central performances are first rate, Richard Dempsey bringing immense warmth to the part of Toddy and Anna Francolini playing Victor/Victoria with a winning mix of spiky determination and vulnerability.

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