Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: 'Legally Blonde: The Musical' at the New Wimbledon Theatre, 18th June 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

The world is a pretty serious place at the moment, a quality which appears to be reflected in the shows I've been invited to lately. The spectrum begins at 'yer basic straight-laced, issue-focused political theatre, going right the way through to immersive pieces that promise to let me "experience the realities of life in a Nazi death camp". Jeepers.

So it was with a weird relief that I opened the email inviting me along to Legally Blonde: the Musical. Sure it looks like the kind of chintzy good-time mainstream musical theatre that I generally avoid like the plague (to the point where other theatre critics I know were surprised to even see me there), but I figured I was due some kind of palette cleanser and hey, I enjoyed the Reese Witherspoon movie way back in the day.

Legally Blonde is the story of Elle Woods, initially seeming like a typical blonde valley girl. After her boyfriend dumps her for not being 'serious', she resolves to win him back by attending Harvard Law School and proving her smarts. It's a story with bones rooted in ancient college comedies that The Simpsons was taking the piss out of back in the 90s - stuff-shirt college admission boards, preppy students, frat houses and sororities and so on. In the end, it posits one burning question for our age:

Can a rich, attractive, white woman really become a lawyer?

There's a decent argument to be made that Legally Blonde is a bit offensive in the way it rejoices in a super-privileged 1%er going to Harvard, but honestly, the show is so much fun that for once I'm going to leave the socio-political wrangling to one side and just enjoy the toe-tappin' tunes and snappy one-liners.

And damn there are some fun songs in here. Whipped Into Shape, involving a lineup of synchronised dancers with skipping ropes is an outright great pop song, ably led by Helen Petrovna. Gay or European at first raises a little eyebrow at where this might be going before erupting into a stonkingly fun on-stage Pride march that brings the house down. By the time the whole cast is on stage grinning and dancing their way through the show's bounciest numbers, the vibes have become so infectious you'd need a hazmat suit not to start dancing.

This is delivered by a cast rehearsed to perfection, who manage to play it extremely broad without descending into total farce: while the characters and events might be ludicrous we still essentially care about Elle's various predicaments. Much of that's down to Lucie Jones' nicely caricatured performance, effortlessly walking a tightrope between believability and cartoonish exaggeration. Even before she's proving her mettle in Harvard, Jones' Elle seems to radiate subtle intelligence despite her bimbo-ish accessories.

But there's a big problem here - the use of real animals on stage. In the movie, Elle famously carries her chihuahua everywhere and in defiance of the old stage maxim about not working with animals, the show includes two dogs in its cast - a Chihuahua and an English Bulldog.

The chihuahua occasionally looks a little awkward but has apparently been trained to appear in the show since it was three weeks old, so I suppose it's at least used to the situation. However, the bulldog spent its scenes straining on its lead to escape the stage or (appearing to) cower in fear on the floor under the stage lights. Both animals elicit a chorus of 'awwwws' from the audience, but the bulldog's obvious discomfort and stress made me genuinely uncomfortable - and I wasn't alone in feeling this - I heard whispers of "that poor dog..." from people sat behind me. I'm not going to say it entirely spoilt the night, but these scenes certainly left a sour taste in the mouth.

It leaves a show that I really enjoyed 99% of and were it not for what looked to me like mild animal cruelty it'd have been a glowing recommendation. Perhaps that bulldog was just having an off night and it wags its tail happily the rest of the run, but it's difficult to get over the bad vibes of watching an unhappy dog struggling to escape the stage.

Addendum: having done a bit of research it seems that the show auditions a local pet bulldog for the part on each stop on the tour - using pets that haven't been trained for stage work probably explains why this one looked so scared.

Legally Blonde: The Musical is at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 23 June, then touring. Tickets here. 

Photos by Robert Workman

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