A Sentimental Journey @ Wilton’s Music Hall, London

cast list
Sally Hughes, Ian McLarnon, Mark Halliday, Elizabeth Elvin, Glyn Kerslake

directed by
Alvin Rakoff

Oscar Levant’s joke that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin does, like all the best jokes, illustrate a truth about its subject. For though best-known and much loved for her squeaky clean comedies and her wholesome persona, the woman born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff had a life that was anything but sunshine and roses. Much married, she survived domestic abuse, car accidents, serious injury and bankruptcy, and had a career as marked by devastating lows as it was by exuberant highs.

Adam Rolston’s A Sentimental Journey looks at this extraordinary life without shying away from the darkness. Narrated by her son Terry, with Day herself chipping in, this is a picture of the woman as a cheerful, plucky survivor getting through whatever life throws at her – Mommie Dearest it ain’t. And it’s the dark spots of the show that are the weakest – while there is some poignancy in her misfortunes, the scenes too often tend towards melodrama to be really affecting (you know you’re in trouble when spousal abuse makes you titter), and there’s never long enough before the next song for the drama to take hold.

The rest of the story fares better. Ian McLarnon as Terry is a dry and likeable narrator with a nice line in throwaway remarks, and while Sally Hughes is slightly too blousy for the role, and her voice – unsurprisingly – fails to match the range or purity of the original, she has plenty of energy and a down-to-earth, slightly sardonic charm, easily capturing the sense of a woman who never bought into her own publicity.

The rest of the strong cast multi-task, with Elizabeth Elvin sympathetic as Doris’ mother, and Glyn Kerslake and Mark Halliday bringing life and colour to the men who helped shape the star. Eileen Diss’ simple, stylised sets – all pastel colours and wobbly TV cameras – work well, wisely not competing with the fading grandeur of Wilton’s Music Hall (one of the last in the city and so an apt venue for this tale of old-time musical entertainment). Jane Kidd’s costumes successfully capture the times and differentiate the characters well.

Alvin Rakoff’s direction keeps things pacey, and both Joseph Pitcher’s choreography and Jo Stewart’s musical direction deserve praise – a rousing rendition of Deadwood Stage that has Day circling the audience in a makeshift wagon is a standout, as is Glyn Kerslake’s version of Young at Heart, capturing all of Sinatra’s cocky charm.

Overall, the play knows its audience – keeping talk to a minimum and catering to a crowd as keen to hear a set of standards performed capably as much as they are there to learn about a complicated woman made to appear simplistic by fame. It is in this sterling performance, rather than in offering any deep insight, that the play succeeds. So for an undemanding and charming night out full of familiar songs, A Sentimental Journey is a trip worth making.

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