Thursday, August 27, 2015

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' at the Landor Theatre, 26th August 2015

At first glance Thoroughly Modern Millie looks like it's onto a winner. This is a sugar-sweet trifle of a musical packed with vigorously Charlestoning flappers, toe-tapping tunes, ultrachic Roaring Twenties fashion and snappy screwball dialogue. It boasts a bevvy of high octane, charismatic performers and is generally suffused with an air of good cheer. This is a show with many arrows in its quiver - so how does it miss the target by a mile?

Adapted from the cult 1967 Julie Andrews-starring musical of the same name, Thoroughly Modern Millie was revived in the early 2000s to broad acclaim. It tells the tale of new-girl-in-New-York Millie Dillmount (Francesca Lara Gordon). Sick of her podunk Kansas town, she arrives in the Big Apple with starry eyes and a head full of Vogue lifestyle columns. Her ambitions are fairly straightforward: to snare a rich husband and lead a life of easy luxury. If she has a bit of fun in speakeasies, society parties and fashionable clubs along the way, then so be it.

Complicating matters are a cold fish of a boss that ignores Millie's advances, an annoyingly persistent sweet young man who won't leave her alone, various money woes and dodging the prohibition enforcing cops. Unbeknownst to Millie, she's also got to tangle with her landlord Mrs Meers who's running a 'white slavery' ring that sells young girls to Hong Kong brothels.

This is cool.
 First things first. Francesca Lara Gordon, in her debut professional performance, is an excellent Millie. Intelligent eyes sparkle under her Louise Brooks bob, giving a cartoonish character a tangibly human dimension. Physically she's all sharp angles, coquettishly posing as if she's spotted a fashion photographer secreted in the audience. Gordon also makes the most of some marvellously tasselled dresses which nicely accentuate her movements as she throws herself into the dance numbers with gusto. She isn't the greatest singer I've ever heard, but imbues all her numbers with personality - which goes a long way.

Similarly fun are Samuel Harris' stuffshirt boss, a stock role but played almost to perfection, getting some of the biggest laughs of the night. Christine Meehan also impresses in her various roles, wringing every comedic drop out of her lines and body language. All that, in combination with some neat dancing, a nice sense of energy and a decently malleable set should make for a basic success. Thoroughly Modern Millie isn't going to rewrite the musical playbook, but this sounds decent enough, right?

Well there's a fly in the ointment. An massively racist fly. Being previously unfamiliar with the story I was sat there basically enjoying myself until the arrival of the villain, Mrs Meers. She's a straight-up racist caricature; a woman in yellowface with a black bun hairdo, geisha makeup and cheongsam whose catchphrase is "so sad to be arr arone in the worrd". Compounding this is her slavery scheme, which derives from racist conspiracy theories of innocent white girls being preyed upon by secret and powerful foreign criminal organisations bent on defiling them. 

This ain't cool.
Very slightly ameliorating things is Mrs Meers quickly reveals herself as a white woman disguising herself as Chinese. I suppose there's an argument that what we're seeing is the racism of the villain character, but imagine if the Mrs Meers character was in blackface and talking with a comedy 'Mammy' accent? After all, deep down the 'joke' here is making fun of the Chinese accent.  This shit is unacceptable in 2015, bringing to mind Mickey Rooney's deeply regrettable Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast in Tiffany's.

Compounding matters are that supporting character Ching Ho is played by a non-Chinese actor. Alex Codd does a decent job in the role, but you have to wonder how hard it would be to find a London based Chinese actor to play a Chinese role (especially given that the show's already on some pretty thin ice), and not have someone trying very, very hard to talk in accented broken English without being massively offensive.

It boggles the mind that someone, sometime during production didn't point out that maybe this could come across as a teeny-weeny bit racist, and that perhaps the script could be altered to remove it. For me it spoiled what would otherwise have been a reasonably enjoyable production. Sadly, Millie proves to be anything but 'modern'.


'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is at The Landor Theatre until 13 September. Tickets here.

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