Robert Tanitch reviews Ace of Clubs at Union Theatre, London SE1
The great thing about The Union Theatre, under the artistic direction of Sasha Regan, is that you can catch up on musicals you thought you would never have a chance of seeing.
There will be lots of people who will want to see Ace of Clubs precisely because it is by Noel Coward and they will have a good time, even if they find the show proves to be as bad as the critics said it was at its premiere in 1950.
The action is set in a seedy Soho night club in post-war Britain, a black-market world of stolen nylons and stolen French perfumes. Jack Thorpe Baker’s revival turns the whole intimate Union auditorium into a cramped nightclub. The audience sits on hard chairs at tables. The crowded atmospheric setting is easily the best thing about the show.
There are two stories. The first story concerns the love of a sailor (engaging Gary Wood) for a singer (Emma Harris). There is not much chemistry between them. The second story deals with small-time, amateur gangsters and a stolen necklace andthe dialogue sounds like the screenplay of a British B crime picture of the period. It rarely sounds like Coward.
The songs feel as if they were written in the pre-World War 2 era and the revue jokes at the expense of the sort of songs you get in tacky floor show, sung by untalented chorus girls, are laboured without ever being truly funny.
There is, in fact, such a shortage of good songs that the cast in the curtain call sing “London Pride”, a song Coward wrote in 1941 during the Blitz and which was never in this musical. The best song is, probably, “Sail Away,” which Coward re-used in 1961 in a show called Sail Away, another of his unsuccessful musical comedies.
The potential show-stopping number “Would You Like to Stick a Pin in My Balloon?”, in which the chorus girls offer male members of the audience pins to prick their, er, balloons, would go with an even greater bang-bang if there were many more balloons on their bodies and more opportunity to prick them.