State Fair @ Trafalgar Studios, London

Cast List:

Gemma Boaden, Karl Clarkson, Lewis Grant, Jodie Jacobs, Michael Kent, Robine Landi, Laura Main, Gillian McCafferty, Stephen McGlynn, Helen Phillips, Philip Rham, Susan Travers, Richard Vincent, Anthony Wise

Directed by

Thom Southerland

Rodgers and Hammersteins State Fair transports us back to a time when, for many American farming families, electric milking machines were the height of modernity and the annual State Fair was the highlight of the year.

Here people stood to fulfil their dreams by winning the best boar or tastiest sour pickles in the state award, or by meeting the love of their life.

All of the magic of the occasion was captured well in the film of 1945, itself based on Phil Stongs 1932 novel. It represented the only time that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote directly for screen, and the subsequent stage adaptation only appeared in 1995.
To be sure, certain elements of the film, which focuses on the fortunes of the Frake family when they go to Iowas State Fair in the 1940s, are lost in the transfer to stage. The first meeting of the young lady of the family, Margy, and the journalist, Pat Gilbert, feels stilted in the absence of it taking place on a moving roller coaster. Similarly, reporting the way in which Abel Frakes boar only looks like a winner when in the presence of a certain sow is no match for seeing this for ourselves on screen.

But overall far more is gained than is lost. The original film included just five songs, with only ‘It Might as Well be Spring’ being particularly famous today. The stage version, on the other hand, has been pepped up with additional numbers, which maintain stylistic continuity by being adaptations of other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

This particular production, which started life at the Finborough last year, also benefits from being staged on a small scale. Because State Fair was originally designed as a film, much of it rests on scenes between couples, the intimate nature of which can be captured well in a small performance area. On the other hand, the big song and dance numbers such as ‘Its a Grand Night for Singing’ and ‘All I Owe Ioway’ feel just as exuberant as in the film, because, although fewer people are involved in them, they are performed so close to the audience.

From among the strong cast, Laura Main as Margy stands out for the sensitivity of her singing and the expressive quality of her acting. She also provides, with Stephen McGlynns Pat, an exemplary rendition of Isnt it Kinda Fun, the type of love song with a twist that Rodgers and Hammerstein do so well.

Karl Clarkson is also effective as Margys brother Wayne, but the highest accolades must go to Philip Rham and Susan Travers as the mother and father of the Frake family, who cleverly demonstrate their understanding of the cyclical nature of life. They were once the youngsters having their hearts broken, and they know that their children will one day look back like them and see the heartbreak simply as par for the course.

All in all, this is a hugely enjoyable show, meaning that the Trafalgar Studios could reasonably claim, in the words of the opening song, that our State Fair is a great State Fair.

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