Sarah Jo Carter
David John Watton
Premiring at His Majesty’s Theatre, London, in August 1916, Chu Chin Chow went on to run for 2,238 performances over twice as many as any previous musical. In contrast, this current production is set to run for five, and even that may sadly be enough to see the show being condemned to the same fate as the eponymous Chu Chin Chow’s disloyal slave: buried in a cave for evermore.
With book and lyrics by Oscar Ashe, and music by Frederic Norton, Chu Chin Chow is a take on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in which the Chinese visitor to Kasim Baba in Persia proves to be the Sheikh robber, Abu Hasan, in disguise. The plot that ensues sees double-crossing in abundance as Hasan tries to deprive Kasim of his wealth and slaves, but inadvertently ends up being the making of his brother, Ali.
As I entered the tiny Finborough Theatre I was impressed to see a thoroughly English set complete with lamppost, pub sign and Palladian veranda only with Arabic writing pinned to the walls and Persian jars on the shelves. However, after philosophising on the cleverness of turning Persia into England, but with the most subtle of allusions to the original setting, I realised that this was merely an attempt to make the set that was there for the Finborough’s other current show, Hangover Square, fit for purpose.
Officially dubbed as a ‘semi-staged, script in hand’ performance, it might have been more accurately described as ‘totally hammed, hadn’t learnt the words’. Of course, one could argue that the show invites silliness, but surely the entertainment has to be achieved through slickness, and not the clumsiness that this production all too frequently had to offer. Many jokes on the night were made about its small scale such as the fact that the jars on stage were too small to contain the men supposedly hiding in them but far too many derived from genuine mistakes such as misplaced props or actors losing their place in the script. The gaffs were played on and the audience laughed, but at one point I was left wondering whether, had the evening run smoothly, there would have been anything left to laugh at in this production.
It is a shame because, through all this, it was possible to see why Chu Chin Chow, though it feels primitive today, was once such a success. Clearly, it had fortune on its side in attracting troops on leave with its scantily dressed slave girls, but with the exotic dancing still packing a punch, one could see why it was considered so on the edge at the time. Similarly, the music was pleasing to the ear, and though most of the songs worked to a single theme, their references (to, for example, great lovers from history) were reasonably interesting. Similarly, by making much of the dialogue Shakespearean in style, it continued a great English playwriting tradition (even if it was totally unrealistic to hear such language in Persia).
But the show could never have hoped to work on such a small stage as the Finborough’s (so good at many other things), and with such limited resources. It was unfortunate because many of the individual performances were strong. In particular, there was real chemistry between Will Barratt and Victoria Kruger as the lovers, Nur and Marjanah, with Kruger demonstrating a captivating voice and Barratt proving himself to be a true all-rounder (he was equally successful in playing Hasan’s henchman).
I am certainly not opposed to semi-staged performances of this nature. Indeed, I recognise that when the budget and demand will always be limited, corners have to be cut if certain works are ever going to be seen again by an audience. But Chu Chin Chow‘s record number of performances for a musical was only beaten by Salad Days nearly forty years later. For that reason alone, it deserved a better airing than it got here.