Seeing two musicals in two days breaks all my personal records -- quite often I see only two musicals a year. I won't waste too many words on the first one, as everybody has seen My Fair Lady, except to say this was a highly successful traditional production by a top amateur company in the southeast, the Petts Wood Operatic Society. All I Want For Christmas is brand new and much more exciting.
Katy Darby and Luke Bateman aren't yet as well known as Lerner and Loewe, and their musical is a four-hander with piano accompaniment, played in the bijou surroundings of the Jermyn Street Theatre. But the quality of the show is exceptional; not being a musician, I can't say much about Bateman's tunes, but they match Darby's sweet-and-sour lyrics perfectly.
I have to declare a slight interest; Katy Darby's script was originally a short play which I remember from its first reading at Player-Playwrights several years ago. The original storyline about a banker inviting an escort girl to pose as his girlfriend for Christmas lunch with his parents has survived, but several years of hard graft and collaboration with the development workshop Mercury Musicals have turned a bright idea into a much more subtle and multi-layered work. It's now a one-act musical, lasting a little over an hour, with some dazzling lyrics that (at least to me) reminded me of Sondheim. The lyrics and the book are woven seamlessly together, avoiding the clunky transitions which can occur when two writers are involved. The characters are drawn with depth and sophistication, especially Anthony the banker. He sees himself as just too hard-working and busy to acquire a real girlfriend, but his obsessive pursuit of a happy Christmas day fantasy reveals a much darker side to his personality. 'He's a bloody nutter,' exclaims his father at one moment.
For a black comedy, the tone is important, and this work weaves together the traditional Ayckbournesque humour of keeping up appearances with many other more subtle ideas and subtexts. Is Christmas Day just an occasion for mass role-playing? At what point does fantasy become harmful? 'I just want Christmas to be perfect -- just once!' shouts Anthony.
Rob Hughes is totally convincing as the banker who needs to get his head sorted out, or perhaps just needs to grow up. Jessica Martin and Andrew C. Wadsworth make a convincing parental couple, but the show is stolen by a stonking performance by Erica Guyatt as Irina, the Serbian escort. Irina, an actress who dabbles in escort work on the side to pay the bills, tells us in her first song 'I'm very very good at what I do.' This sense of total professionalism, carried to extremes, is the core of her character. Helped by high Slavic cheekbones and a dandy Serbian accent, Guyatt's performance in the role of the glammed-up good-time girl is an absolute hoot. 'To tell a girl she's beautiful's not hard, but you'd better say it with a credit card,' she sings. The idea isn't totally new (diamonds have always been a girl's best friend) but the lyrics are sharp and acid, and the way they are delivered is a delight.
The relationship between Anthony and Irina has some parallels with the story of Higgins and Eliza (nothing in any musical is ever totally original) but there is an important difference between the two musicals. My Fair Lady, of course, has far more characters and a wider canvas, but its main advantage is that both its principal characters have time to develop. In other words, it has a second act. All I Want For Christmas may be a one-act musical from which a two-act musical in which the two principal characters go on a longer journey is struggling to get out.
This show, flawlessly directed by Anthony Biggs and designed with exquisite Christmassy detail by Cherry Truluck, deserves to be more widely seen. But you can catch it at the Jermyn Street Theatre until December 18th.