Thoroughly Modern Millie

May 18 2018 | By More

★★☆☆☆   Shiny-edged

Brunton Theatre: Wed 16 – Sat 19 May 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Exhilarating moments and a couple of great individual performances ensure a shiny edge to Encore’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Brunton to Saturday.

For all the hard work put in from everyone concerned, however, the production doesn’t quite manage to lift itself past the problematic storyline, based on a moral panic that owes more to anti-Chinese racism than reality.

Alison Henry, Gillian Hunter and the Priscilla Girls. Pic Encore.

Richard Morris and Dick Scanlon’s musical – based on the 1967 movie of the same name – follows ingénue Millie Dillmount from rural Kansas who arrives in 1922 New York and sets upon the “modern” path of finding a boss to marry for money not love.

Alison Henry provides strong vocal capabilities as Millie. She has a real sense of the drama and storytelling to the opening Not for the Life of Me, as Millie tears up her return ticket home, a symbolic rejection of all she is leaving behind, and goes wide eyed into the teaming bustle of New York.

It is a production which relies more on the backdrops, set and songs to provide a sense of the dramatic thrust of the musical, rather than big chorus numbers with intricate choreography. Director and MD Peter Antonelli makes sensible use of a company which embodies the principles of open access more than many and ensures that no one is left exposed.

So as the show segues into the title song, with Millie joined by the chorus as she adds a modern flapper look to go with her modern attitudes, all is told rather than revealed. But there is plenty of spirit to the chorus who succeed in stealing all her worldly goods – including a shoe she is wearing – before disappearing into thin air.

surprisingly good connections

Ignored by all, Millie resolutely trips up the next passing man. He, of course, will the be love of her life – although she will have to spend the rest of the show finding that out. And as the no-mark Jimmy Smith, a paper-clip salesman with surprisingly good connections, Kevin MacConnachie sets her right with a properly judged caustic line and off to Hotel Priscilla, a home for actresses where they are used to girls who can’t pay the rent.

The Encore Ensemble. Pic: Encore.

If the main plot, about rural girls coming to the city to find work, is a truthful reflection of history, the sub-plot about white slavers capturing orphan girls and sending them off to Hong Kong is not just weak, but potentially offensive.

Fortunately, Antonelli refuses to go down the yellow-face road. It’s fair enough for Hazel Gray as the creepy Mrs Meers who runs Hotel Priscilla to put on a fake accent. She’s a proper villain playing a role (badly) and Gray is ghoulish enough in the way she presents two different faces to the audience to deserve a rousing baddy’s boo.

Steve McDonald and Alan Taylor as her henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, play it relatively straight without resort to cliche. Their characters are less figures of fun than has been seen before. The device of providing subtitles to their lines, spoken in Chinese, is done with a flip chart brought on from the wings. It’s a nicely knowing solution to a tricky plot device, but it still needs to be a lot more slick in its delivery to provide the laughs.

The girls of the Hotel Priscilla are given a frothy edge by Megan Rourke, Becky Duncan-Skelton, Rebecca Kinross and Kirsty Sandilands, crowding round and adding sparkle.

excellent value

Gillian Hunter is excellent value as the mysterious Miss Dorothy, a rich girl slumming it in Hotel Priscilla. She has a strongly operatic singing style in a nice contrast to Henry’s more edgy delivery, and helps carry the plot on well.

Things move up a notch when Millie eventually gets a job, as a stenographer for boring Mr Graydon, whose workforce is marshalled by the ferocious Miss Flannery. Ian McKenna brings over the role well and creates a nicely enjoyable impression when he eventually lets down his hair.

Anne Henry as Miss Flannery and her stenographers in Forget About the Boy. Pic: Encore

But it is Anne Henry as Miss Flannery who provides the hottest and most unexpectedly entertaining moments when she lets go – largely because she has set herself up so well as an office dragon of the old school. She ensures that the performance of Forget About the Boy is a real treat.

Indeed, the whole production plays to the strengths of its soloists. Heather Antonelli gives a strong turn as Muzzy Van Hossmere, the rich socialite and cabaret singer who Millie sees as a someone to aspire to, having married rich.

So it is that the highlight of the whole production comes well into the second act with Gimme Gimme. The band understands how to ensure that the dynamic of a piece is preserved, to the full dramatic impact is achieved when Alison Henry takes it right back down to the edges of wistful, before edging up through the gears to deliver a big resounding belter of a number.

This is not a perfect production, but it plays to the strengths of its performers, giving them the opportunity to shine and delivering some strong and heartfelt moments of real emotional truth.

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes (including one interval)
Brunton Theatre, Ladywell Way, Musselburgh EH21 6AA. Phone booking: 0131 665 2240
Wednesday 17 – Saturday 19 May 2018
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Hub Tickets


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Comments (1)

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  1. A most enjoyable show.
    The singing was excellent and told the story very well.
    We will go back to see another encore production.