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Me and My Girl - Chichester Festival Theatre

I can almost hear the grammar police in my schooldays (which constituted the sort of teachers who relished giving detentions out for the most puerile of reasons) yelling, “How daaaaaa-re you! It’s ‘My Girl and I’!” They would probably spontaneously combust if they were ever to listen to ‘Our Time’ from the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which ends with the lyric “Me and you” repeated eight times. Such people would not enjoy Me and My Girl, grammatical conventions aside, at least in the sense that they do not enjoy anything, and always, always have something negative to say about everything: this is the Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer musical, and it’s fun, fun, fun.

Yes, the performance I attended coincided with a sporting fixture – namely that of England playing against Sweden in the FIFA World Cup 2018 quarter-finals. I do not mean to say that the result (which went in England’s favour) had any impact on the enjoyment or otherwise of the production, but simply that the feelgood factor was compounded by it. As ever with the Festival Theatre’s musicals in the main house, it’s a fairly large cast: twenty-four this time around, supported by an orchestra of eleven, though somehow the latter sometimes comes across as larger than the former.

There’s little, if anything, revolutionary about this show. It even appears to unashamedly borrow elements of the plotline from Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (on which My Fair Lady is based), with Sir John Tremayne (Clive Rowe) having tutored Sally Smith (Alex Young) in the mannerisms of high society in the style of Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s play similarly (seemingly) transforming Eliza Doolittle, though we see nothing of the process. Instead it is Maria, Duchess of Dene (Caroline Quentin) and her attempts to refine and reform Bill Snibson (Matt Lucas), a working-class man completely lacking in airs and graces, to which some stage time is given. It is, as per Pygmalion, quite a hoot.

I am still in two minds as to whether the show is too hammy. When Parchester (Jennie Dale), the solicitor to the Hareford Estate (it can, I think, be reasonably assumed she may have other clients as well), bursts into song yet again, someone will tell her to stop. So, it’s not the sort of show that takes itself too seriously. Bill Snibson, meanwhile, throws out punchline after punchline – plot takes precedence over character development. The Act One closing number, ‘The Lambeth Walk’, provokes an enthusiastic response. But the Festival Theatre has done this before: the cutlery comes out and is used as musical instruments, the dancing gets increasingly more impactful as the song goes on, and practically everyone on stage joins in, traditionalists, servants and all. ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ from the 2016 musical Half A Sixpence, anyone?

It works, though, for the most part – elements of the second half started to drag, and ‘Leaning On A Lamppost’, as unexciting a number as it sounds (it involves Lucas’ Bill, well, leaning on a lamppost), could do with trimming down. And, for those enough old enough to remember, Lucas isn’t quite as nuanced as Robert Lindsay (who won Best Actor in a Musical at the Laurence Olivier Awards 1985, beating Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables). But then, there’s the occasional ad-lib that Lucas does well (though I’ve seen Lindsay ad-lib too, in other productions). Of note is the musical arrangements (Gareth Valentine) – without giving too much away, I am torn between describing it as ‘versatile’ and ‘schizophrenic’.

If you’re seeing this show, don’t be late back at the end of the interval: it goes straight into ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’, which is worth seeing as a big song-and-dance number. I smell a West End transfer: it’s business as usual at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Four stars

Performances until 25th August 2018

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