Tom and Polka

Dominic Andersen as Tom Jones) and Rebekah Hinds as The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress with the excellent ensemble. Pictures: Pamela Raith

What's New Pussycat?

Birmingham Rep


Well, as Tina Turner might put it, this is simply the best, the best new show, indeed any show, I have seen in some time, and there have been some good ones.

What’s new pussycat? Well, for a start it is new, a world premiere in fact; it is refreshing, colourful, 60s powered with a touch of psychedelia; it has the pace of an Olympic sprinter, more style than a Versace warehouse, (other designer labels are available); it is witty, clever and above all enormous fun, making even feel good feel good.

It is based on Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which, I must admit, I have never read, and I long ago forgot the details of the X-rated 1963 film seen in my teenage years,

But, no matter, this is a highly watchable musical even if you have never read the book, or indeed any book in your life. The story is simple, easy to follow and has all the elements of a boy meets girl saga with problems a plenty coming between them before our two lovers are back arm in arm.

The music comes from the huge back catalogue of Tom Jones, the singer, who incidentally took his name from the film, and it works. What this isn’t is a jukebox musical, the music fits in quite beautifully and, apart from a few songs that everyone on the planet must know, it is music you could easily believe was written for this show, the songs integrate that well.

The tale has moved from the 18th century to the swinging 60s, and Dominic Andersen is a delightful Tom, tall, lean, good looking and with a good voice, carrying the part of the ne’er do well, pleasure seeking foundling, with an easy style, while Bronté Barbé is outstanding as Tom’s true love Mary Western.

She gives us a Mary with a mixture of feisty and vulnerable and we do feel for her as she is being forced into a loveless marriage while her own true love, Tom, has, should we say, a more liberal attitude towards fidelity, and what a voice. The Rep is a big stage and she fills it and then some with  her version of power ballad Without Love, making it a real show stopper. 

Bronte and Tom

Mary Western as Bronté Barbé and Dominic Andersen as Tom

Lined up to be her husband is Harry Kershaw as William Blifil, a pretentious, upper class, contender for twit of the year. It is a brilliant performance with just enough pomposity and stupidity to dislike him while at the same time finding him funny, with some lovely one liners thrown in with impeccable timing. He keeps it just the right side of light hearted villain.

Agreeing to the arranged marriage is Melanie Walters as Mary's mother, Mrs Western, giving us a prim and proper, prude of a woman, who sees marriage very much as a profit and loss affair – love being little more than a distraction and completely unnecessary. Sex being a burden you suspect she sees in the same way as scrubbing the floors or washing the windows.

So a marriage to Blifil, from a wealthy family and about to become a solicitor, is a match made in  . . .  well not so much heaven as the bank account.

Mary wants to marry Tom, but Tom’s ward, who found him on his doorstep, is Lord Allworthy, played in a suitably avuncular fashion by Julius D’Silva, who sees Tom as a likeable wastrel and cannot allow him to see any more of Mary. Even worse, he banishes him to London to make something of himself. If he manages that then he will be welcomed back in the family.

So, on the journey, we come across Tom’s former teacher Mr Partridge in a super performance from Ashley Campbell who ends up in suits made in material warehouses must have been trying to get rid of for years, think humbugs, or pianos, or zebra crossings if you are not musical. He’s funny, girl-shy, and even brings tap to the party with his newly found true love, the girl in the polka dot dress played by Rebekah Hinds, who gives us a dance lesson for free and advice for Tom that . . . well it might have worked, but it didn’t.

lady Bellaston

Ashley Campbell as Mr Partridge, Dominic Andersen as Tom and Kelly Price  as Lady Bellaston.

Tom, has one talent, apart from girls that is, he can sing and tries his hand at a club where the ensemble's Tom Francis, looking like a young Jerry Lee Lewis is holding the rock'n'roll stage. Tom, Jones, that is, is pretty bad but, Lady Bellaston, fashion entrepreur, sees his potential – as a singer and apparently, in her words, “more than just a passing erection”.

Kelly Price’s Lady gives us a mix of fine acting and even finer seduction, sex made flesh in a gloriously racy performance – a femme fatale in my day, or a Cougar with a capital C in the modern parlance.

Notable in the superb ensemble is Lemuel Knights who plays pretty well everyone else from bouncers to vicars but has a real highlight as Big Mickey, the psychotic prisoner with his manic version of Delilah – join in . . . or else.

It is hard to find any fault anywhere. The ensemble are brilliant, even providing a trio of backing singers and a harmonica player. The singing is first class, Tom’s I who have nothing a dramatic finale to Act 1, the wit is sharp, risqué at times, and the design from costumes (Janet Bird) to sets (Jon Bausor) is quite dazzling with some excellent video backdrops (Akhila Krishnan), such as the Act 1 train journey when Tom encounters Mr Partridge.

Sound is well balanced, not always easy at the Rep, it is loud enough to be brash, but not too loud to be uncomfortable and the choreography is just a delight. It is helped by having fine dancers, but Arlene Phillips has squeezed every drop of interest out of every song. There is no going through the motions here. Each dance is an integral part of the show.

Joe DiPietro has provided a fine script and Luke Sheppard has turned it into a sparkling show while Josh Sood, the musical director, and his nine piece orchestra bring the music to life – a nice touch to have musicians, such as the brass section, appearing on stage from time to time.

It is a brilliant new show which deserves to succeed and join the musical theatre catalogue. It’s a show that comes into the rarefied category of one not to miss . . . so, enough said, just go and see it. It’s on to 14 November.

Roger Clarke


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