Watching The Full Monty--a musical version of the 1997 British film that has been exported to the West End from Broadway--I began to wonder whether I'd entered The Twilight Zone. As I recall, the film was a comedy about a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers who decide to re-invent themselves as a troop of male strippers. In the musical version, the story is the same but with one crucial difference: the unemployed steelworkers have become American and Sheffield has been transformed into Buffalo, New York.
It's hard to know whether to be flattered or offended by this. In a sense, it's a tribute to British theatregoers that the American producers think we're broad-minded enough not to mind the changes they've made. This is in stark contrast to American theatregoers who, presumably, won't go and see anything that isn't set in the US of A. But in another sense it's insulting. The producers are assuming that British audiences have so little national pride that they can take a modern British classic like The Full Monty, completely Americanise it, and then serve it back up to us with a glass of Coca-Cola and a side order of fries.
Or perhaps they're banking on the fact that the only people who go and see West End musicals these days are Americans. Certainly, on the night I saw The Full Monty, the vast majority of the people in the audience were American tourists. They loved it, too, whooping and hollering every time one of the well-built actors whisked off his trousers to reveal a leopard skin thong. Needless to say, as a hot-blooded British patriot, I wasn't so enthusiastic. Having to listen to the same dialogue spoken in thick American accents made me realise just how dependent the film was on the charm of its British cast. The jokes have been re-packaged as charming examples of blue collar American humour which isn't quite as winsome as gritty Northern humour. Witnessing the story unfold, but without Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson or Mark Addy to help it along, was like having to sit through an American version of Absolutely Fabulous with Roseanne Barr and Whoopi Goldberg cast as Patsy and Edina. I couldn't get out of the Prince of Wales theatre fast enough.
South Pacific, by contrast, is a delight. I saw it a few days after The Full Monty and was still so angry I spent the first five minutes fantasising about how I might Anglicise it. Why not set it in the Falklands and make Lt Joseph Cable of the US Marine Corps a dashing young RAF pilot? The Japs could be turned into Argies and Emile de Becque, the romantic French plantation owner, could be transformed into Sir Rex Hunt, the redoubtable Falklands Governor. As for Nellie Forbush, the plucky young nurse from Little Rock, why she would become Margaret Thatcher! I can just picture the Iron Lady singing 'I'm Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair' while she whacks General Galtieri with her handbag.
The most striking thing about this production of South Pacific, which has been directed by Trevor Nunn, is the opulence of John Napier's sets. They give the proceedings a dream-like quality that provides the perfect backdrop for this lush, romantic melodrama. It feels more like being in Shangri-la than the Second World War. Still, as Jules Styne famously remarked after seeing Starlight Express, "Who wants to come out of a show whistling the lightbulbs?" Fortunately, South Pacific has some of Rogers & Hammerstein's most memorable show tunes, including 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'Bali Hai' and 'You've Got to be Carefully Taught'. It all slips down like some delicious cocktail served up by a swimming pool in Las Vegas.
The great thing about South Pacific is that it's less like a straightforward musical than a play set to music--the story is every bit as strong as the score. The same cannot be said of My One and Only, another American import. Created in 1983, it's a composite musical whereby two old Broadway hands, Peter Stone and Timothy S Mayer, have taken the score of Funny Face, added a couple of songs, and given it a new book. George and Ira Gershwin's compositions are as charming as ever, but the story that links them together seems like so much padding. Like The Boyfriend, My One and Only is a spoof of 1920s musicals but its efforts to seem knowing and tongue-in-cheek struck me as a bit laboured. The fault may partly lie with the two leads, Janie Dee and Tim Flavin, who are both completely sexless. I managed to stick with it until the end--which is more than can be said for The Full Monty--but it isn't a patch on South Pacific. I reviewed Kiss Me Kate in these pages last November and for sheer escapist entertainment that runs South Pacific a close second. But unlike the Cole Porter crowd-pleaser, Trevor Nunn's production at the National closes in a fortnight. Try and catch it while you still can.