Conceived and written by Nick MacLaine and Izaak Lim
Directed by Michael Loney
Musical director Tim Cunniffe
Performed by Will Groucutt, Analisa Bell and Pilar Mata Dupont
Downstairs at the Maj
10 – 13 August, 2011
A biographical pastiche of the songs and life of Cole Porter sounds easier to do than it is, and it's to the great credit of You’ve Got That Thing’s young writers Izaak Lim and Nick Maclaine that they have neatly side-step the traps in their path to deliver an elegant and surprisingly substantial entertainment.
The first wise decision they made was to keep Porter off stage. We learn about him through three of the people in his life; his wife Linda, his favourite performer Ethel Merman and an apocryphal boyfriend Edward, modelled perhaps on his long-time friend Ray Kelly, to whose children Porter left half his royalties.
It’s a nice touch, and a clever one. By not having to represent Porter himself, Lim and Maclaine are able to speculate and invent without the weight of verisimilitude demanded by baleful old pedants like me; so, for example, the famously convenient relationship between the Porters is drawn out in exchanges between Linda and Edward with a freedom that would have been awkward and artificial if we heard it from the couple themselves.
Their next winning decision was to enlist Michael Loney to shape the show. The lightly framed agility of Porter’s writing, and the comic timing that his music brings to even his more serious subjects, is meat and drink for Loney the actor, and as director he imparts that stagecraft to his cast to the show’s great benefit.
They are another strength of the production; Analisa Bell isn’t quite Ethel Merman, but she’s a tigerish performer who drags the best out of her talents in the attempt, and Will Groucett concocts a convincing all-American gee-whizery as Edward without losing the steel the unknown need to inject themselves into the orbit of the famous. Pila Mata Dupont has a quality of carriage that radiates control and self-awareness. She is compelling as Linda Porter, all Southern charm and determination, at once formidable and sympathetic.
The songs you want to hear are pretty much all there; You’re the Tops, Swell Party, Let’s Do It, Love for Sale, Begin the Beguine, I Get a Kick out of You – it’s a very long list. They are all effectively rather than spectacularly performed; the cast have perfectly fine voices, Bell’s better than fine, but Porter’s songs are more conversations than arias, and it's this quality that this pared-down production emphasises.
You’ve Got That Thing is a rung or two above many of the locally produced pocket cabarets in the Downstairs at the Maj programme. It would be nice to think it could return for a longer run with a bit more production oomph, perhaps by augmenting Tim Cunniffe’s typically lion-hearted solo piano with a reed or two and a rhythm section. In tough times, where Porter’s magic is always the perfect antidote – evidence the smash hit revival of Anything Goes in this year’s glorious Broadway season – that would be an investment that might well deliver the goods.