Ruthless! The Musical is a camp extravaganza about ambitious actors stranded in small-town America. Sylvia St Croix, a pushy agent, visits a super-talented 10-year-old, Tina, and persuades her to audition for Pippi Longstocking in a school play. Tina’s mother fears that stardom may spoil her little girl but Tina is finished with childhood. ‘Time to move on.’
The production feels like a zany Spike Milligan sketch with a garish set and over-the-top costumes. Sylvia is played by Justin Gardiner who swaggers about like a cross-dressing cowboy in a clingy frock and false breasts. The dialogue, which takes cheap shots at bourgeois morality, may not suit all tastes. Try this. Tina complains to Sylvia that she never sees her father. ‘Why, yes you do,’ blushes her mother, ‘Daddy was here just six weeks ago.’ ‘Was that Daddy?’ frowns Tina. ‘I think so,’ says her mother. For me, that’s comedy gold. For you perhaps, it’s dross. Good actors can find three laughs in that short exchange and the performers here get all three of them. The plot darkens when Tina gives a brilliant audition but fails to land the role of Pippi. Cast as the understudy, Tina murders her rival and becomes the show’s star.
This morbid story-line is incredible, of course, but the show’s cartoonish exuberance creates a fairy-tale atmosphere where anything seems possible. The child-on-child murder is balanced by an equally absurd back-story concerning Tina’s mom, Judy, who was orphaned as a kid and wants to learn the identity of her biological mother. Her adoptive mom, Lita Encore, is a heavy-weight theatre critic whose venomous reviews have been known to drive performers to suicide. Could Judy be the daughter of a star who vanished after Lita rubbished her talent? The search for Judy’s origins, and for the true identity of Sylvia St Croix, create a sequence of surprises that continues into the second half.
By now, we’re in New York where Judy is living in a penthouse, having taken to the stage and become Broadway’s latest musical sensation. Tina shows up, liberated from child-prison, and still determined to succeed. The second act develops into a riot of dramatic surprises and violent mayhem but its logic never departs from the narrative blueprint set out in the opening scene. Not everyone will relish this show’s macabre humour, its tasteless gestures and its flouncy, self-parodic acting. I happen to have an appetite for broad, demonstrative and unsubtle comedy like this. And my inner script-doctor appreciated the ingenuity and inventiveness of a plot that takes the audience on a magic carpet-ride from the po-faced suburbs to the heights of Broadway and back. Those who disparage the show’s superficiality are overlooking the fact that its frivolities are underpinned by an immutable human truth: to get ahead in life, or in showbiz, you need a killer-instinct. These characters may be narcissistic boneheads but they’re sincere about their goals, and that makes them work as dramatic figures. Director Richard Fitch has created an outstanding comic company. Kim Maresca is hysterically funny as Tina’s mom and yet she never loses her small-town breeding and dignity. Tracie Bennett (Lita) holds the house in thrall with a song-and-dance routine about a critic who hates song-and-dance routines. Anya Evans took the lead on press night which suggests that she’s the best of the four kids hired to play Tina. She’s no relation of mine. I wish she were. She’s a star.
Tracie Bennett’s career has never matched the size of her voice, and I wonder if a spicier stage name might have helped. This conundrum faces an unknown singer, Maggie Brown, in the wartime musical Miss Nightingale. She’s persuaded by an ambitious producer to adopt a new romantic identity. Rechristened Miss Nightingale, she finds success but gets pregnant and has to reconcile motherhood with her showbiz dreams. The producer, meanwhile, conducts a forbidden affair with a gay Polish refugee. These stories are intended to highlight the troubles endured by gays and lone women in mid-20th-century Britain. Which is fine, but a bit preachy. And the two strands aren’t particularly well integrated. But that’s the only weakness in this eye-catching production written and directed by Matthew Bugg. The multi-talented cast can act, sing, dance, and play numerous musical instruments, and this concentration of talent makes the show feel like it’s bursting to reach a larger stage. The star, Lauren Chinery, is a fabulous discovery. Bugg and his team are already developing new material and they have the potential to create a global export. But they need to find the right script. Inventing a story from scratch is unwise for a company that specialises in song-and-dance skills. They could do themselves a favour by choosing a popular play or book with an established fan-base and a title that everyone recognises. Then the sky’s the limit.