“For tonight if we dream, the world will dream along with us”
Phil Wilmott is clearly a master at directing large casts in tiny spaces and combined with Andrew Wright’s amazingly precise choreography, conjures more energy and life in the intimate space of the Union Theatre on a shoestring here with Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi than I saw at any point during that other show that I saw at another Adelphi recently. A Christmas Carol also by Wilmott and also produced by MokitaGrit, filled me with a whole Santa’s sackful of festive cheer and they are obviously doing something right as this show filled me with the joys of spring, even on this bitterly cold March evening.
A huge success with its run in Liverpool, picking up some big awards along the way, this is the London premiere although the programme talks ominously of this being the final chance to see the show. It’s an old-fashioned love story, albeit one set in two different timezones, set against the backdrop of the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool, a venue that capitalised on its location as a major transatlantic port in providing an ideal stopping point for Hollywood stars en route to more glamorous locations. We follow Jo and Neil in the present day as he tries to tempt her into backpacking round Japan with him and Alice and Thompson in the 1920s and 30s with their on-off romance being constantly challenged by events and circumstances seemingly out of their control.
And it tells this story so very, very well: simple but effective, moving yet never mawkish and ultimately entirely captivating. Mixing the time periods allows for a wide range of contemporary and classic musical styles to be utilised, but they fit seamlessly together as a pleasingly consistent whole: the highlights are undoubtedly the stunning group numbers, the choreography alone is superb but when one considers the limitations of the space, what is achieved is nothing short of magical.
In a hard-working, tightly-drilled and pitch-perfect ensemble, it seems almost churlish to pick out people, but invariably some performers grab the attention and here Jamie Birkett as scene-stealing man-hungry chambermaid Babs is a magnetic tour-de-force with a great voice which should surely see her on the path to future success. I would have liked to have seen more of Matthew Markwick’s Neil as he had a sweet geniality to him and I also enjoyed Marc Antolin’s moves (though for the life of me I can’t work out where I recognise him from!)
Of the leads, Jon-Paul Hevey will be a shoo-in for Mr Big if they ever create a musical version of Sex And The City: The Early Years, capturing the suave chancer that is Thompson but also giving him a believable softer side too and as the older and younger Alices respectively, Ally Holmes and Rebecca Hutchinson both breathed a nice vitality into our heroine, a woman simultaneously ahead of her time and as a big an old-fashioned romantic dreamer as you’ll ever meet.
It has a real sense of warm affection for its location, a love song to Liverpool if you will, and being a child of the North West of England, there’s a smattering of references to places that brought a wry smile to my face: Sefton Park, Widnes, indeed I would wager I was the only person in the audience who could reply in the affirmative when one character asked “have you ever been to Crosby?”! But much like Edinburgh in Midsummer (A Play with Songs), knowledge of the place merely enhances the experience, it is by no means a prerequisite.
In vain search of a criticism, there’s perhaps a little too much repetition of the main tune, but then it is a good one with a strong melody and I can still hum it today, which is more than can be said for any of the Love Never Dies songs, even the one I really liked. And given the strength of the earlier choreography, the slow-mo Blitz attack looked a bit clunky, but these are minor minor quibbles.
Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi is proof positive that all is far from lost for the future of British musical theatre: indeed this might just be one of the finest examples of the genre to emerge in recent years.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1