Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Savoy Theatre, London – review

In 1927 Show Boat ushered in a new age for the American musical, in which songs became integral to narrative and character development rather than gratuitous routines. The other night, I found myself wondering when that age had ended.

Of course Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a romp. Based on the 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin (which is in turn based on the 1964 movie Bedtime Story starring David Niven and Marlon Brando), it tells of two confidence tricksters competing to extract €50,000 from a young American woman visiting their French Riviera base of operations. Young, brash Yank Freddy reinvents himself as a war hero who needs psychotherapy to get him out of his wheelchair; urbane, mature Englishman Lawrence tries to thwart him by in turn posing as a heartless headshrinker. Each attempts to romance the visiting “Soap Queen” and to prise her purse open. Clearly silly, in other words. And yet Jeffrey Lane’s book is much sillier than either film version, and David Yazbek’s songs are sillier even than that – and neither contribution is silly in a good way.

Jerry Mitchell also directed Legally Blonde at this address in 2010, another movie-to-musical that determinedly eradicated every atom other than the feelgood. Any instance of underplaying may conceivably result in docked wages. Basic theatrical continuity goes out the window, as characters sing in verbal idioms and even in accents entirely alien to their spoken lines; but hey, as long as it raises a smile . . .

The principal direction given to Robert Lindsay as Lawrence seems to have been to take every opportunity to indulge himself, which he does with everything from a brief vocal reference to Terry Scott’s 1962 novelty song “My Brother” to an ill-concealed spot of competitive corpsing during an over-the-top mock snog with Rufus Hound as Freddy. Hound made the transition from stand-up to comic actor in One Man, Two Guvnors, and he shows the same exuberance here, but that and a basic ability to carry a tune are all that are asked of him. Samantha Bond and John Marquez are comparative pillars of dignity in a romantic subplot. This is like a Muppet rendition of the comparatively mature, subtle film version . . . which was, er, directed by Frank “Fozzie Bear” Oz.


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