The Great British Bake Off Musical - Noel Coward Theatre
I can’t tell you which character wins The Great British Bake Off Musical. I have not been sworn to secrecy, I have not been asked to keep that piece of information to myself so as not to spoil the wonder and enjoyment for others, and I didn’t fall asleep in the closing scene. I can’t tell you because the winner isn’t disclosed – Gemma (an engaging Charlotte Wakefield) acknowledges that it’s what the audience wants to know. But patrons are instead invited to watch the show proper the next time it’s on, and there’ll be a winner of the next series. At the time of writing, the current champion is Syabira Yusoff, a cardiovascular research associate at King’s College London who did a PhD in genetics. Other professions amongst the participants (contestants? candidates? I don’t know, I don’t watch it!) in the most recent series included IT manager, nuclear scientist and electronics engineer.
At least on paper, then, there aren’t many actual contestants in the show itself like Izzy in the musical (Grace Mouat), who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that extends to being morally dubious and indulging in sabotage. The wonderful thing about this production (What? Excuse me? There’s something ‘wonderful’ about something called The Great British Bake Off Musical?) is that you don’t need to know anything about the show itself to understand this musical adaptation. Granted, on one level, there’s not much to understand – the contestants bake things each week for the duration of the competition, so long as they are still in it, as an elimination is made by a judging panel, who also choose a ‘Star Baker’, which I took to mean ‘Baker of the Week’ by another name. There is no public ballot, which admittedly surprised me – but maybe the show stands out because its judges always have the final word.
There were some in-jokes that regular viewers will understand – Phil Hollinghurst (John Owen-Jones) is Paul Hollywood in all but name, for instance, and much is made of Hollinghurst’s / Hollywood’s handshakes (if you know, you know, and if you don’t, like me, c’est la vie). Prue Leith is renamed Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne). Key events in the history of the Bake Off series are acknowledged throughout the evening. Russell (Michael Cahill) cuts his hand in a similar fashion to John Whaite (winner, series 3), and Gemma very nearly replicates Iain Watters’ actions in series 5: after her ice cream was removed from a freezer, Hassan (Aharon Rayner) later discovers her melted ice cream, but she is stopped from throwing it into the bin by Francesca (Cat Sandison), who gives her fellow contestant a pep talk.
The stand-out performances came from Babs (Claire Moore) who brought the house down in ‘Babs’ Lament’, in what becomes an exuberant expression of her fantasies, and from Lily (Aanya Shaw at the performance I attended, the role being shared with Maisy Mein and Amelie Rouse), the nine-year-old daughter of Ben (Damian Humbley). The musical adaptation does nothing to dissuade those inclined to think the television show is heavily edited in such a way as to create heightened dramatic tension when in reality there is little, if any, animosity between certain contestants. But there are some insights into the sort of things that might go on between the judges, the presenters and the would-be bakers off-camera, told in an animated and often charming way.
It's review-proof and critic-proof, really, and it inevitably won’t be enjoyed by anyone not willing to go in open-minded. In a way, I had no choice, not being a viewer of the television show, but to go in without prejudice or premonition – I had no intention of watching previous series online. It took a while to grow on me: come the interval, I was just about intrigued and invested enough not to get up and get the Tube home there and then. My patience was rewarded, however, as the second half was better than the first, despite the relative repetitiveness of ‘signature’, ‘technical’ and ‘showstopper’ challenges: even the contestants, who applied to be on the show, complain about the tedium of their routines and the long hours required because of filming schedules.
It does, admittedly, overdo it a little bit (I still have no idea what point the show is trying to make with those giant scones engaged in battle) and there are wafer-thin (sorry) backstories which, to be fair, sound credible. Of course, the la-di-dahs and snobs are going to hate it. But then that lot probably aren’t going to bother seeing it anyway, and so they’re making judgements on a show they haven’t seen. That’s like me attempting to criticise a recent performance of a football team without having seen the match in question. I’m not going to take up Gemma’s invitation to watch the next series of the actual Bake Off – indeed I left the theatre with neither a craving for a pastry nor a desire to bake a cake. And I’m not going for a second helping by buying more tickets. Still, I don’t regret seeing it, and it’s a reasonably decent night out.