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Review: How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Southwark Playhouse Borough)

Review by Daz Gale


Staging a show as big and bold as How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a tough enough task without factoring in staging it in the intimate Southwark Playhouse Borough. However, that is the unenviable task producers Big Con Productions and The Grey Area have taken on. Having produced last year’s bold reinvention of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, they are trying to repeat that winning formula again - but will it be a success?


How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying was first seen on Broadway in 1961 with a West End run, Broadway revivals and a film adaptation. It tells the story of J. Pierrepont Finch who uses the book with the same title as the show in a bid to start a new career and rise to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company. On his way up, he faces competition, rivalries and complexities he perhaps hadn’t anticipated but never loses sight of his mission.



Director Georgie Rankcom has gone back to the original intentions of the show, carefully keeping the balance between the satirical nature of these characters who first appeared more than 60 years ago while making it clear this is not an endorsement on anyone’s behaviour. The intention is admirable but for some reason or another, the execution gets lost along the way.


The book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is full of some brilliantly witty writing and a tongue in cheek comical look at the business world and what it takes. With some truly laugh out loud moments both physically and verbally, there is plenty to enjoy in How To Succeed… However, whether it be the original writing or the direction itself, the pacing feels a little off. At near ninety minutes, the first act may be no longer than that of Les Miserables but the fact it feels slow in parts and very overlong suggests something is not quite working. Act two may be half the length of the first but it also comes with a far more confused and disjointed tone, taking us on a whistle-stop tour of events but never quite managing to convey the narrative of the story in a cohesive enough way.



The casting choices for this production are inspired. Beautifully inclusive in multiple days, a refreshingly diverse cast perform gender-switched roles in a fantastic representation of fluidity. While some purists may not be thrilled with the very different approach to casting in this way, I always take the stance of asking if the casting choice affects the story in some adverse way? The answer to that is definitely not – it only goes to make it more interesting and exciting, truly elevating the narrative.


Gabrielle Friedman takes on the lead role of J. Pierrepont Finch, perfectly charming both her fellow characters on her way to the top as well as the audience. A constant source of stability in the wacky world of the story, Gabrielle sometimes finds herself eclipsed by some of the bigger characters on stage but this only adds to the calibre of her acting as she takes a less-is-more approach to fantastic effect. Annie Aitken is a highlight in a relatively late addition to the story as Hedy Larue, adding a refreshingly different dynamic to the story with a character who seems to have the slightest of Marilyn Monroe influences. Verity Power has a small but mighty turn as Smitty with some of the most memorable moments in the show, while Milo McCarthy gives a fine turn as Mr Milton Gatch.



Tracie Bennett gives a truly fabulous performance in the gender-switched J.B Biggley. Swanning in and out of the story, she seems to get more and more absurd as she embraces the big nature of this weird and wonderful character. Showcasing what a phenomenal performer she is, she gives a comic masterclass, both with the delivery of some of the shows funniest lines (“Why don’t you jump” destined to be as iconic as her “Av it!”) as well as in the more physical moments of the show. Of course, she also makes sure she gets a chance to demonstrate her truly iconic vocals, bringing the house down when she gets a chance to show off her inimitable Tracie Bennett vocal stylings.


In a truly sensational cast, it would be easy to single out every single performer. While they are all fantastic in their own right, there are two I have to mention. Elliot Gooch is an undoubted highlight in his turn as Bud Frump with perfectly exaggerated and over-the-top mannerisms creating a villainous character that is high camp at its finest. The kind of performance that demands your eyes focus on him whenever he is present on stage, he is a force to be reckoned with in this role. Perhaps the standout performance of the whole show goes to Allie Daniel in her turn as Rosemary Pilkington. Drawing some of the biggest laughs of the show, she is an absolute wonder in the role in what feels like a career-best performance for her. Getting to showcase her own stunning vocals alongside a performance that manages to be both comic and full of heart, she gives a truly scene-stealing turn which only makes her relative absence in the second act all the more frustrating.



Frank Loessers music and lyrics remain a key part of the show with a mostly consistent sequence of songs punctuating the story. Highlights include early number ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ expertly performed by Allie Daniel, ‘I Believe In You’ and the rousing ‘Brotherhood Of Man’ all performed with style, allowing for impressive vocals (special mention to Grace Kanyamibwa) to counter the comic nature of the songs.


Similar to last years Anyone Can Whistle, Georgie Rankcoms direction transports us to a big, colourful and mad world. Their bold choices for this staging don’t always land as had been hoped but there are moments of brilliance buried among some of the other moments that fall victim to the shows pacing problem. Alexzandra Sarmientos choreography is responsible for some of the most fun visual moments of the show,with the staging of ‘Coffee Break’ a particular joy, with Sophia Pardons set design taking the idea of a literal career ladder and running with it (not literally running with a ladder because, you know, health and safety). And did I mention it features Michelle Visage as the voice of ‘The Book’. What more could you possibly need from a show?



How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a mad slice of musical theatre but one that comes with a lot of joy. Though this production is not without its flaws, there is enough going for it to make this a truly enjoyable show - namely its phenomenal cast, particularly the standout performances from Tracie Bennett and Allie Daniel, as well as some fantastic songs and a great comic story. The camp and colourful nature can provide a beautiful sense of escapism even if it may veer slightly on the long side at times. Overall, this production might not have completely succeeded but a couple of minor improvements and it will be on its way to a big promotion.


⭐️⭐️⭐


How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 17th June. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk


Photos by Pamela Raith

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