In his programme notes, director Tim McArthur writes, “I wanted to give the evening and the artists a story to hang on to and give all the characters a journey”. The trouble is, Dorothy Fields' songs are good enough to carry themselves. The stories they tell are stronger than the superimposed narrative. Of course, a musical tribute to a librettist is bound to lift songs out of context, but I can't help thinking it would be more interesting to see a revival of one of her musicals than to listen to the greatest hits yoked together under the pretence of telling a story about a hairdressers.
No doubt real aficionados would feel differently, and it is true that many of Fields’ hits are stand-alone numbers (four out of the thirty-odd songs performed were written as pop songs), including the brilliant and much covered "On the Sunny Side of the Street". The already initiated are perhaps the play's real audience, but it seems a shame not to draw the rest of us in a bit more. As the programme notes point out, lyricists are sometimes overlooked when we recall great songs, and Dorothy Fields’ contribution to Broadway and films is certainly impressive – the show features songs picked from a lifetime’s work, from 1928 right up to 1973. Among them are some very familiar lyrics – “Pick yourself up / Dust yourself off / Start all over again” leaps out.
The set up is a group of women at different stages in life and with various love complaints, gathered in a hairdressers run by the well gaudy Helen Hobson and Leanne Jones. The gossip as they get their hair washed and flick through magazines is provided by the songs. A flustered Jane Milligan sings "I Won't Dance" (from Roberta) down her mobile phone; Shona White sings "This Is It (Stars In Your Eyes)" about her new man; and Rosemary Ashe is "Blue Again". It is an ordinary day at the hairdressers.
But the narrative is there as a device, and it remains a device. The show is a sung-through piece, with a couple of snatches of speech, so the characters – which are more like character types than characters, with the young, the middle-aged and the older woman broadly represented – compete with the much more real characters of the songs. This has some confusing effects at times, for instance when Rosemary Ashe sings her way valiantly – in character – through "He Had Refinement", from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Lines like: “In the water at Coney Island was our first embrace / When my water wings flew off and hit 'im in the face” lose some of their charm when they are sung in a clipped British accent. And there is no reason or consistency here: at other times, a song is sung in well-groomed American showbiz.
The Jermyn Street Theatre is small, and obviously not the ideal space for five leading ladies and a pianist (musical director Sarah Travis) to find themselves performing big show tunes, mainly about men but without a man in sight. At times it felt a bit like talent night in a girls' school – except that the singing was really good, of course, as you would expect from a cast with a huge amount of West End musical singing experience between them. Still, had this comic edge been acknowledged the play might have lost some of the awkwardness of five voices competing for centre stage. Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough for the actors to do on stage. There is a lot of faffing and some cringey “actions” but professional choreography to match the professional singing was lacking. Maybe this is just a visual qualm. As a chorus, they certainly sounded fantastic, even if a male voice would have been welcome at times.