Sarah Helsby Hughes
Nancy Wei George
Despite being the only musical to feature a score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of the 1960s – Promises, Promises has had a surprisingly small tenure across the world’s theatre stages. Premiered on Broadway in 1968, it was last performed in the UK over thirty years ago and has been long overdue for a revival.
Given the ongoing national fascination with all things kitsch, as well as the play’s New York Christmas setting, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken Sam West’s first season at the Crucible to bring it back onto a British stage. For Sheffield Theatres, of course, it’s an excellent opportunity – one that they’ve made the most of with an impressive production.
Based on Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning comedy The Apartment, Promises, Promises is a parable of Sixties sexual politics told through the mishaps of Chuck Baxter, an insurance worker who climbs the career ladder by lending his apartment to executives and their mistresses. When Chuck falls in love with the mistress of a senior exec, things start to go typically awry leading to some big laughs, as well as plenty of insightful, often downbeat reflections on life in an era where sexual freedom was the buzzword but divorce and insecurity were often the reality.
The performances are excellent throughout, most notably Richard Frame as Baxter (ably taking to the challenge of a part made famous by an on-form Jack Lemmon) and Emma Williams as a demure Fran Kubelik.
Very occasionally the acoustics of the Crucible let Frame down, and in louder moments his voice seemed to be drowned out by the band. Despite the Crucible being perhaps not ideally set up for musical theatre, its wide open stage is used to maximum effect in a myriad of energetic, clever and often festive dance routines. In the quieter numbers the delivery is rarely less than perfect. The classic I’ll Never Fall In Love Again is particularly electric, and is definitely the musical highlight of the show.
The sixties atmosphere is captured fantastically through a combination of inspired staging and costume design. While the period fashions are often glamorous, at other times Sheffield Theatres have plumbed their way to the very depths of cringe-worthy sartorial kitsch, all of which lends the characters a historical validity so often missing in musical theatre.
The staging, centred round an office elevator that then transforms into the apartment front, excels most in its subtler touches – the dial on the elevator moves to reflect scenes set on different floors, as does the sky-scape projected onto the backdrop screen (behind which the band are barely visible). The lighting design also deserves special mention, especially in so accurately capturing the cold granite light of the office interiors.
Most interesting of all is how well the theatrical excesses of a Broadway musical have been subtly balanced with a sensitive portrayal of ordinary people struggling with cultural change and the sometimes unforgiving nature of modern relationships. These are real people, and just like the music of Burt Bacharach is tinted with an air of melancholy whimsy, every player on this stage exudes that contradiction between feeling excited by the freedoms of the future whilst longing for the perceived security of the past.
All in all then, Promises, Promises delivers everything a good Christmas production should, blending festive cheer with insightful drama, fantastic songs and a genuine affection for the myriad contradictions of the Sixties.
That Sheffield Theatres are giving this negelected gem its first airing after thirty years in the theatrical broom cupboard is another small but important coup for Sam West’s directorship.