So who said America was an irony free zone? Me. Regularly. All changed, changed utterly with this year’s brilliant and subversive production of trans-Atlantic show Legally Blonde. In a troubled wider world, Doug and his mega-talented team gave us all full-throttle, unalloyed, first-class entertainment which was so much more than the lightweight expectations of the title. It was full of beauty as well as brains and a pure joy from start to finish.
Where to start the praise? Well, without question, Zahara Burfield totally nailed the lead role as Hurtwood’s very own fashionista, ‘Woods comma Elle’. To quote Doug (aka God: in the theatre he sees it all) she proved ‘the most generous and calmest of performers’, which is just as well, as she was pretty much on stage the whole time, and, when not, in some kind of ‘quick change’ in a ‘cupboard off-stage'. Zahara literally shone in all her gorgeous manifestations and array of costumes. Choose your own favourite. Mine would have to be the golden-sequined hot pants and red majorette outfit: Elizabeth Poulter and her team once again proving peerless in the zip, impact and narrative communication of wardrobe design, blending each of the 79 (no, not a typo) members of the cast into a glorious swirling pageant of pure, colourful, energetic youth. Without question, the costumes, like the extraordinary set, video and lighting design, coordinated, simplified and facilitated clear audience response. The sunny, happy, sexy, California girls (OMG) world of Delta Nu sorority, thoroughly enjoying the stereotypical role of ‘silly and lightweight’, contrasted with the ‘boring, ugly, serious people’ of self-satisfied academia of Harvard and east coast conformity. With both worlds passing shallow judgments on each other, the mockery was mutual and ultimately, of course, affectionate. Alastair Coulton’s design and realisation of the potentially dizzying set-switching, worked seamlessly with Guy Davey’s lighting: we always knew where we were, and boy, were we enjoying it! Moving imaginatively between west and east, the seamless video imagery carried us, like Elizabeth’s costumes, into joyous musical escapism.
With Doug directing, aided and abetted of course by Andy’s brilliant comic eye, from the very first opening moment to the last celebratory ticker-tape explosion, we were swept along with the fun and games of love and worldly ambition misdirected, misunderstood but finally reconciled and rewarded. With Jake Mackail and Will Tarpey offering us fab clichés of masculine success (posh boy presumption versus poor boy 'chip-on-the-shoulder'), there was a completion of the love triangle at the heart of the plot. Jake brought us all the arrogant blindness of self-satisfaction: deeply shallow and hiding naively behind aviator glasses, he was always destined for the dull narcissistic world of modelling. (An enormously enjoyable pattern of this whole production was the reversal of almost every gender stereotype known to [wo]man. Got to love it.) Will, on the other hand, exuded a comfortable kind of warmth and goofiness in his role as the ‘true’ love interest, shot through with good nature and an understanding of the real world outside the bubble of privilege. An outsider himself, he swiftly connected with the embedded marginalizing of girls, and submitted to be ceremoniously dressed for both female and professional approval to ‘seal the deal’ in both worldly and personal terms! The clear relish (and wisdom) in Will’s portrayal of his character Emmette (American names? Shall we not try to make sense of them?) was a tonic. He had clearly sussed the advantages of such female attention and was happy to acquiesce. Bravo for such wisdom, I say, and the underpinning irony of accepting and rejoicing, even, in otherness.
From start to finish, this production offered a gentle kind of universal mockery of our frail humanity in all its shallow self-importance. Robyn Mirmak’s Vivian brought a wonderful comic muscularity to her role as privileged, educated east coast girl, ultimately recognising her own conformity to paternalistic role play, and finding her inner pinkness, finally joining the ‘sacred bond of sisterhood’ with complete and joyous zest. Likewise, Fredi Goodwin-Scott totally inhabited her role as a spiky, politically charged lesbian, seduced and ultimately softened like us all by Elle’s combo of beauty and brains. With Molly Hughes and Maddie Smith alternating in the role of savvy but ultimately flawed celebrity exercise guru (liposuction is involved — truly shocking, I know) and demonstrating even more high-octane energy and skill (holding leg and bodyweight in the air on a freeze-frame moment: dangerous theatre or what?) the range of affectionate, ironic versions of femininity enlarged. Impressive, truthful and self-mocking, and so energetically amusing. Not everyone enlarged their consciousness, however: redemption in this gloriously funny play alas was sadly not universal. Jake Mackaill and Archie Elliott as Warner Huntingdon (third generation, handing on the patterns, eh?) and Prof Callahan both entirely and all-too-convincingly failed to move beyond the stereotypical attitude towards an intelligent girl who happens also to be beautiful and sexy. Well done, boys, but I am trusting you had to draw fully on all your acting abilities here to recreate such attitudes.
There were so many layers of entertaining plot lines. Special plaudits, however, have to go to the comic performance that echoed the ‘merry war’ of gender conflict between the educated and privileged classes, illustrated on a more human level. Pippa Williams pretty well brought the house down in her standout role as Paulette the hairdresser, as knowledgeable about manicure, perms and misplaced female romantic longings, as she is naïve about men and the Irish. Bonding delightfully with Elle over dogs and lousy boyfriends, her tutoring in the age-old skills of ‘Bend and Snap’ proves an almost unbearably funny highlight in a play of sustained superb entertainment. Watching those frat boys watching those gorgeous girls: priceless. Well done Gabe Nagy and pals; your leering was truly professional. Don’t know how you did it. And Pippa? A totally extraordinary talent, rewarded on stage of course with the adoration of ‘walking porn’ UPS delivery man Kyle, played with almost alarming swagger and panache by Jonathan Irwin. Apparently, some of his ‘ethnic movements’ had to be dialled down from early performances, and if my nine-year old granddaughter is anything to go by, he’s created an impressive fan base…
So, I hear you say, before we go any further: the dancing, the music. OMG You Guys. Crass and ironic though the phrase clearly is, it is hard not to resort to the opening explosion of sound and movement that greeted us from the first to the last moments of the play. As ever, the professional polish and joyful precision that is Nick Larkin’s hallmark, included the whole cast of 79, from leads to chorus and the whole energetic company, keeping us mesmerised from first to last. The action, the plot — all unfolded seamlessly, pulling us breathlessly through the story. Doug, when quizzed, identified ‘the golden vocals of the Delta Nu group.’ Stunning, yes. But frankly there was never a weak link of sound or movement. The stage rocked between massive action-packed explosions and intimate interchanges, with every kind of collective performance in between. Lottie Stent, old Hurtwood hand, but here for the first time taking the challenging baton of chief choreographical control from our talented Neil Fisher, truly excelled. The energy was palpable, the movement and flow of the dancers was never less than mesmerising. The confidence, the sheer force of passionate teenage emotions flowed through every kind of movement, from jive and hip-hop to ballet. Not only did we not have to worry about potential collisions — not on this stage — we almost didn’t know where to look, there was so much slick and innovative action across the whole stage. Breathtaking.
So much to cover; so much to praise. What did I love most? I think it would have to be the slick movement between high and low culture: I am a Jane Austen girl at heart, it cannot be denied. With the noisy rebranding of the Californian sorority as a stunningly sexy Greek chorus offering every kind of worldly wisdom, from the comic observation that ‘no woman should be denied her dog’ to the ultimate truth that ‘being true to yourself never goes out of style’, I was completely in the moment. Flowing white robes had morphed into an amalgam of sassy cream shorts, tops and trainers in Elizabeth’s vision of empowering female wisdom, all energy and easy confidence. If you’re going to take on the ‘phallocentric narrative’, the way forward is making us laugh and think, not cross and frustrated. Let’s go, sisters. ‘Girl if you wanna make the team/Then fake some self-esteem'. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and this show does it in bucketloads.
Time to close, hoping that I have done a little justice to all those, named and nameless, all of whom have made this show Hurtwood gold. Every member of this amazing company should feel really proud of their contribution to this fabulous production from top to bottom. Proving once and for all that women can be both Jackie (Kennedy) and Marilyn (Monroe), whilst celebrating difference of every kind, we’re led by the noses to see that ‘what we want is right in front of 'us and that ‘Love will see us through’. It did; it does. Hurrah for such enjoyable, illuminating entertainment and hurrah for Hurtwood Theatre and all who sing and dance in her.