Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse review: a badly dated comedy that's a gilded celebration of lechery

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
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Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse

I can’t think of a more appropriate start to the Trump era than revisiting Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1968 Broadway hit – a breezy chronicle of workplace sexism in which Boys Will Be Boys, whatever the cost, and women are either brutalised angels awaiting Mr Right or mouthy broads lounging in the clutches of Mr Wrong.

There’s only so much you can beat a text up for being a product of its age, and it’s worth bearing in mind original scribe Neil Simon’s thoughts on comedy as doing “something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting”. But the greatest revivals question as much as they pay homage, and this Southwark Playhouse production is depressingly tame.

Based on the rather more acerbic Billy Wilder movie The Apartment, Promises, Promises tells the story of Chuck Baxter, a puppyish insurance clerk who finds himself loaning his flat to middle-aged executives for their extra-marital trysts. He’s out both for a quick promotion and to win the heart of fellow employee Fran Kubelik, the twist of the knife being that Fran is one of the girls he’s unwittingly hosting.

The music may sparkle (it includes the famous I’ll Never Fall In Love Again), the repartee may tickle in places, and the set dressing may be ambitious (perhaps a little too ambitious) for so cramped a stage, with rear windows doubling up as projection screens. But this is one of those shows where every laugh serves to highlight the multitude of jokes that fall flat, and its charm wears out swiftly.

The low point is probably the song A Young Pretty Girl Like You, in which Chuck and his neighbour Dr Drayfuss badger a suicidal Fran to stop crying over misogyny and give them a smile. It’s the kind of airy abomination you’d expect of South Park, but there’s little of South Park’s satire. Elsewhere, Where Can You Take A Girl might as well be titled Sexpest’s Lament.

The cast make make a decent fist of things, at least. Gabriel Vick’s Chuck Baxter is an earnest fast-talker, recalling Jack Lemmon’s portrayal in the movie. Daisy Maywood is the strongest singer and a heartfelt Fran. The surprise star turn is Alex Young as the clownishly predatory Marge, who gets many of the funniest lines, though her appeal is partly that she’s the only female role who’s out to do rather than be done to. By turns bubbly and bruising, this is an overly forgiving take on a musical that has outstayed its welcome.

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