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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at King's Head Theatre

By Matt Wolf

  Murder and marital discord in The Black and White Ball

It's a case of nice venue, shame about the show when it comes to The Black & White Ball, the first in a busy season of productions for the revamped King's Head Theatre, the Islington pub venue that is considerably more comfortable following its recent makeover: proper bench seating, hurrah! Whether that improvement will facilitate one's enjoyment of this Cole Porter-scored original musical is another matter altogether. Grafting 20-odd Porter songs on to an original book from Warner Brown that suggests some sort of bizarre murder mystery rewrite of Follies, Matthew White's production doesn't begin to have the sophistication or elegance suggested by music that itself often seems most peculiarly shoehorned into a narrative that aims to be straightforwardly enjoyable but is more often than not merely creepy: Not in a long time have I seen a definitely post-pubescent leading man - in this case Chris Ellis-Stanton's self-invented writer, Jay - putting the make on an 11-year-old girl, here called Little Leah. Or is the show courting some secret audience of paedophiles that has not been properly catered for in recent years, in which case that's taking new theatrical initiatives in decidedly rank directions.

Jay actually begins the show as Johnny, a strapping Montana lad of indeterminate sexuality who comes to Manhattan to make it big as a writer. Before long, he has fallen under the sway of the wealthy, literarily minded Suzanne (Katherine Kingsley), who lives husband-less with her young daughter and hides real emotion behind a carefully cultivated cool. Johnny by now having changed his name to the more soigne Jay, our hero can't keep out of men's only clubs, a trait that leads him straight into the predatory clutches of drag queen Ron (Mark McGee), a wannabe author whose presence en travesti allows the show's creators to throw into the musical brew Give Him the Oo-La-La in the first act and, of all things, Can-Can later on. It's not giving too much away to report that the faintly ludicrous narrative depends on the sort of sexual stereotyping that won't please more politicised members of the gay community, though the strapping Ellis-Stanton doesn't generate much of a rapport with his cast members of either gender, much to the chagrin of a story that hinges on the accelerating clutches of envy and jealousy.

The show has a framing device by direct way of Follies, with Kaisa Hammarlund revisiting the scene some two decades later of the oh-so-swell New York black and white ball where Jay met his maker. Charles Shirvell makes one of multiple appearances as the caretaker who announces, Follies-style, that this onetime resting place for society's finest is about to be torn down, leaving Hammarlund's now grown-up Leah to replay yesteryear's fateful events over and over in her head. On this evidence, Hammarlund may one day make a fabulous Sally in Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's much-loved show, and she surely deserves better than having to protract an emotional blockage that parallels the writer block that besets Jay - an absence of ideas that, in turn, throws him into the collaborative clutches of Ron, to whom McGee brings the same commitment against the odds that he leant late last year to the abortive West End run of Desperately Seeking Susan.

The conceit seems to want to do for Porter what Crazy For You did for the music of the Gershwins, and The Black & White Ball comes with an intriguing array of producers attached. But however much Johnny/Jay's own confusion may vaguely parallel issues of sexual identity that marked out Porter, the music simply doesn't connect up with th


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