mon 24/06/2024

The Great British Bake Off Musical, Noel Coward Theatre review - blue-chip cast lift daft confection | reviews, news & interviews

The Great British Bake Off Musical, Noel Coward Theatre review - blue-chip cast lift daft confection

The Great British Bake Off Musical, Noel Coward Theatre review - blue-chip cast lift daft confection

It's more adult panto than mature musical, with the sauce liberally ladled on

Ole blue eyes: John Owen-Jones and contestants in 'The Great British Bake Off Musical'Images - Manuel Harlan

If you are hoping for some harmless fun at The Great British Bake Off Musical, probably with a few dodgy jokes about soggy bottoms mixed in, you won’t be disappointed. But what you might not expect is that the show will liberally ladle on the innuendo and is so filthy at times that it’s like being at an adult panto. The audience on opening night certainly seemed a primed one, aahing when a contestant was sent home, booing when one resorted to sabotage. 

What else can the writers do, though, other than step up the smut when their subject is a storyless TV show set almost entirely in a big tent, and all the characters do is churn out ganache and Swiss meringue? On TV, a tent-event is usually a dropped sponge or curdled custard. In other words, it's not a natural home for debates about world affairs or politics, either, even when the contestants are from suitably diverse backgrounds. That sort of content typically has to wait until the winner has a cookbook and/or TV series of their own and is free to talk about more than mirror glazes and choux buns.

So “buns” are exploited for all their worth in the musical’s book and lyrics (by Jake Brunger, plus composer Pippa Cleary co-writing the lyrics). And you may not be able to look a strudel in the eye after the scene where a tube of strudel dough is slapped about by Phil Hollinghurst, the show’s version of Paul Hollywood, ably played by John Owen-Jones, who has caught to a T the hands-in-pockets, hard-stare sternness of the original. Even fragrant Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne doing a Prue Leith imitation) has a taste for the ready-made double entendre. Gwynne, pictured below, does a cartwheel at one point. 

Grafted onto the show’s format are some footling attempts at weightier themes, none of which usually trouble the TV series: the class struggle is introduced via snobby Izzy (Grace Mouat), a Cambridge student with a sideline in backstabbing. Middle age is represented by Babs (Claire Moore), a cockney with pink hair and lust in her heart, and there's an older, married gay man, Russell (Michael Cahill). We also get a hipster vegan, Dezza (Jay Saighal), who predictably has to appear witless, and infertile Francesca (Cat Sandison), an Italian who has lived in the UK for 16 years, who has to secure our sympathy in just one solo, “Grow”, all about the bun not rising in her oven.

The most pointedly relatable character, Gemma, on the other hand, gets a big solo number titled “Rise”, the climax of her attempt at Self-Realisation Through Cake. Gemma gave up work to look after her mum, who has since died. But there isn’t much the excellent Charlotte Wakefield can do to flesh out the role beyond the description she gives herself: “Gemma, a carer from Blackpool”. She is commandeered to be one half of a filo-thin romance with a widower detective (Damian Humbley), egged on by his nine-year-old daughter. 

The one character with a potentially unusual back story is Hassan (Aharon Rayner), a Syrian refugee with a lucky T-shirt who cooks to remind himself of the aromas in his grandad’s courtyard in Damascus. But he’s just one of eight contestants sharing the spotlight.

Haydn Gwynne in GBBOThere’s an occasional whiff of cynicism about the judges' mercenary ambitions – they admit they are in it to get more career boosts and reality show gigs (not to mention invitations to Claudia Winkleman’s parties). The main vibe, though, is Toyland, never more so than when a little model Phil arrives, whizzing across the stage on a miniature motorbike.

The writers clearly know their stuff, referring to Bread Week as Dread Week and coming up here and there with amusingly accurate parodies of GBBO challenges – the self-portraits made of focaccia, the esoteric bread from Uruguay nobody has ever seen, let alone eaten. They also throw in some factoids their research has thrown up, such as the crew rising at dawn to test all the ovens with bakes of that day’s featured cakes. But if you aren’t already a GBBO fan, what will keep you watching?

Most likely it would be the blue-chip cast, many of them experienced musicals people, who deliver the numbers in this daft confection impressively. Owen-Jones, a fêted Jean Valjean, possesses a con belto baritone that a light opera company would welcome, and Moore delivers a showstopping “Babs’ Lament” as if she’s auditioning for Momma Rose. 

Strong singing puts even more emphasis on the lyrics, though, which are school of Victoria Wood, but musically undernourished. Relentless end-rhyming doesn't compensate for the tendency of the songs to cloy, and it soon grows wearying – you brace yourself after "Loose Women” is paired with “own linen”, “plan” with “Michelin", “despondent” with “fondant” – though I confess I did smile at “risk it” and “biscuit". And it’s all delivered in a style that’s now standard: I call it “Broadway-musical confessional", where characters unleash their “truth” on you in a super-sincere song. As a finale, the cast come together to impart their final pearl of wisdom: “Good things come / to those who bake”, as if it’s self-evidently true. (Diabetes, tooth decay and the like presumably don’t count.)

No, it’s not a show for everyone, though we can all probably laugh at Phil and Pam dressed as giant scones, scrapping over how to pronounce the word scone. Thank god they didn’t move on to discussing whether you put the cream on first. Oooh, matron!

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