Bells are Ringing
Anna-Jane Casey, Gary Milner, Fenton Gray, Corinna Powlesland, Aoife Nally, Richard Grieve, Michael Bryher, Carl Au, Bob Harms, Tama Phethean, Adam Rhys-Charles, Marc Antolin, Victoria Hinde, Laura Selwood, Sasi Strallen
How does one create from a chintzy 1950s Broadway musical with outdated subject matter an evening that is not simply enjoyable, but really quite extraordinary?|
The answer is currently on offer at the Union Theatre. It involves packing the show with stars from the West End, the DíOyly Carte and Australian soap operas, choreographing and pacing it to perfection, and using the compact nature of the venue to maximise the impact.
Do all this and it soon becomes clear that the basic show, which premiered in 1956 and became a film in 1960, is not half as modest as we might believe.
Set in New York in the 1950s, Bells are Ringing recalls an era before electronic answering machines, let alone voicemail, had ever been heard of. The company Susanswerphone is a referral service that takes messages for subscribers when they are unavailable and passes them on. The plot focuses on one employee, Ella Peterson, who starts taking a personal interest in her clients, offering advice or bringing them together for mutual benefit.
Although this all possesses a certain 1950s innocence, the same points relate to the internet today. Small actions can have large consequences, communication is everything, and how much do we really care for those we come into superficial contact with at the end of a phone or online?
Anna-Jane Casey, a superlative singer and dancer, is in fine form as Ella, capturing not only her innocence, well-meaning charm and love for life, but also the burden and sorrow that inevitably accompany her philanthropic ways. Gary Milner is also strong as the playwright, Jeff Moss, his voice being all the more effective for possessing a slightly darker edge than we might expect in such a role, and his dancing marking him out as quite a mover.
Fenton Gray, a director and one of the best Ko-Kos (from The Mikado) of our time, puts in a highly polished performance as the shady Sandor, while Richard Grieve (from Neighbours, Home and Away and Emmerdale) delivers a well pitched turn as the determined, but clueless, Inspector Barnes. Corinna Powlesland is also strong as Sue, initially appearing as the dragon owner of the company, but soon showing that she possesses her own caring side.
The entire cast prove to be good all-rounders so that songs such as Independent and Itís a Simple Little System, which enable Milner and Gray to shine, feature equally strong choruses. The numbers Hello, Hello There! and Mu Cha Cha also create the type of all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas that you just donít want to end, and choreographer Alistair David has every right to pat himself on the back.
Above all this lies a remarkable slickness and attention to detail. It manifests in the way that the character Francis scuttles around the pillar after making his phone call; in the way that Ella hands an audience member a tissue before taking a call from Romeo to Juliet(!), and in the subtle way that Ella and Jeff do a half circle around each other at the end of their song. None of these actions sound particularly impressive in their own right, but together they crown what are already performances of substance.
If the show itself still seems modest or outdated the same could never be said for Jule Syneís music, or the book and lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Bells are Ringing features such long-standing hits as Just in Time and The Partyís Over, and the songs are brought out in all their glory here by the musical director, Peter McCarthy.
This show may move on to bigger venues for longer runs, but I would certainly recommend a trip to the Union Theatre while itís still there. In no other place are you ever likely to sit as close to Anna-Jane Casey and Fenton Gray as they perform, or to gain those insights into the characters that can only be got from such a distance.