ANYONE who was lucky enough to see Tracie Bennett in the National Theatre’s brilliant production of Follies will know that this is a woman who can carry a whole show.
Her character, Carlotta, was not one of the four principals, but her performance of I’m Still Here, one of Follies’ big numbers, was an absolute show-stopper.
For someone so tiny, she has a powerful stage presence and an astonishingly big voice. She needs both for the title role in Mame, and she really does coax the blues right out of the horn.
The 2019 Hope Mill production, at Manchester’s award-winning theatre, was the first British professional staging of the Jerry Herman show in 50 years.
Now on a short tour, it is at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 25th January, following a week at the Royal and Derngate at Northampton.
The plot is a Jazz Age comedy, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Patrick Dennis (the name of Mame’s orphaned nephew, and the pseudonym of the writer Edward Everett Tanner III.)
Manhattan socialite Mame Dennis, a wealthy woman renowned for her parties and her wide circle of friends, including stage stars, jazz musicians, writers and the odd waif and stray, takes in her late brother’s orphaned little boy, Patrick. Unfazed by the disapproval and meddling of banker Babcock, who manages Patrick’s trust fund, she introduces the boy to life as she lives it, carefree, extravagant, cultured and bohemian. She is also very kind.
Her joie de vivre is infectious and irresistible. Just when things look really disastrous, in the wake of Black Tuesday and the Wall Street Crash, she meets southern plantation owner and millionaire Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Darren Day).
The essence of Mame – which makes it relevant today – is the clash between high spirits, open-minded generosity and tolerance and American conservativism, with the narrow bigotry that you might think reflects the puritanism of the Founding Fathers.
When Mame meets Patrick’s future in-laws, she meets the other side of affluent America and the tension between her free-wheeling Manhattan life and their buttoned up, “restricted’ community drives the second act.
Choreographer and director Nick Winston has created a show which vividly evokes the energy, style and sheer panache of New York in the Jazz Age. The costumes are gorgeous and enviable – at the interval, it sounded as if every woman in the audience wanted Mame’s glittering dresses!
Harriet Thorpe, a musical star in her own right, plays Mame’s best friend Broadway star Vera – their relationship is one of the delights of the show, particularly the barnstorming Busom Buddies.
The versatile cast plays everything from Mame’s friends to ordinary New Yorkers and hunting-mad southerners. Jessie May has great fun as the prim Agnes, Hugh Osborne makes the most of the thankless role of banker Babcock, Benjamin Wong is Mame’s loyal butler Ito, and Mark Faith, Pippa Winslow and Grace Chapman bring the frightful Upsons to credible life.
The part of young Patrick is shared by three exceptionally talented boys – Harry Cross, Lochlan White and Isaac Lancel-Washington.
The big question is – why isn’t this show heading for the West End? Tracie Bennett may embody the spirit of Mame, but the whole show is a triumph of song and dance and free, generous spirits.