Wednesday, 3 November 2021

REVIEW: Indecent Proposal at the Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is an exciting small venue to visit with the black box space transformed on every visit, great legroom and an exciting and innovative programme. Their latest show is Neil Marcus’s production of Jack Engelhard’s book Indecent Proposal which was made famous by the 1993 film of the same name starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. However, writer Michael Conley has gone back to the book and created a tale with music by Dylan Schlosberg. They creatively have given all six characters a singer/songwriter backstory so that they perform their songs as singers not as characters randomly bursting into song. It is a clever structure but, in some ways, limits the character development and story as they can’t interact naturally with the other characters but merely sing at them from the stage or while busking.

Jonny and Rebecca have been together for ten years and are still very much in love. They both work in the casino and music venues of Atlantic City. Jonny is a regular supporting act at the Ruckus room of Oasis Casino resort where hostess Annie Poole seems to let anyone on stage for a song. They are tempted into a relationship by suave rich former singer Larry who is thinking of buying a record label and has the money to get everything he wants. Heidi and the sixth character the busker are bystanders who get to add their musical voice. It is a simple set-up; what is more important money or love and is there a price to be paid in the pursuit of both. The writers seek to set this period piece from the 1980s in the 2021 context of the #MeToo campaign but it still feels that Rebecca is the pawn in the sandwich until she breaks free to carve her own path. They did not wholly convince me that they were deeply in love and her sudden change of mind when she dresses up to meet Larry was not wholly convincing either. This is the central pillar of the story and the structure of the piece focusing on the songs inhibits the development of the narrative.

The show works because it has a very fine cast, led musically by the extraordinary Jacqui Dankworth showing all her experience and musical pedigree as Annie, especially in the two second-half songs “Atlantic City” and “Will you remember”. When she is on stage performing, she is electric with her sultry jazz voice and nice comic touches. Lizzie Connolly is the centre of attention for the two men as Rebecca shows outrage at the suggestion that she should spend the night with Larry for $1million, reluctant submission before going, quiet enjoyment when with Larry and then a strong resilient independent reaction to her husband’s guilt and depression. She is magnificent in her final song “Wait and see”. Jonny is played by another West End regular Norman Bowman and is full of angst and regret especially in the opening Act 2 Nightmare and in his best song “The we that we were”.

The villain of the piece Larry is played with a cool sophistication by Ako Mitchell in sharp suits, a winning smile although at times his voice boomed out as he demonstrated his power. He too shows he can bang out a tune in his “Have Love again”, the best of the Act 1 tunes. Indeed, the music in Act 1 while pleasantly melodic was weaker than in Act 2 and the interval music of such tunes as Michael Jackson’s “You make me feel” or Sting’s “I am a legal alien” reminded you of some great eighties music that these tunes did not quite match. The music was played by a band of five actor-musicians with Connor Going doubling up as busker and on keyboards and Eve De Leon Allen on guitar as Heidi.

The small intimate space with the audience on three sides reminded me of another great Southwark Playhouse musical Ain't Misbehavin' in 2019 and this time designer Anna Kelsey comes up with a very ingenious solution to transform the cabaret room into a bedroom or casino which works very slickly and with a simple but effective lighting design by Hartley Kemp creates each setting smoothly, keeping the pace well. Director Charlotte Westenra has characters quietly sidling on stage to observe the others, uses pauses well to add tension in the relationship between Rebecca and Jonny although rather coyly has characters speaking too often from a distant off stage. 

The ethical dilemma the piece poses about what you would do for a life-changing sum of money (does it need to be as much as $1million?) is fascinating but in this version, Rebecca is smart enough and strong enough to independently decide and this removes the central issue of the impact on her relationship with Jonny reducing the dramatic effect of the dilemma. Indeed, it all turns out well for the three female characters Heidi taking centre stage, Annie recovering to hold court over the Ruckus room and Rebecca thriving in her charity work helping others and that places this eighties story in 2021.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Row E | Price of Ticket: £27.50
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