Robert Tanitch reviews The AZ of Mrs P at Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Southwark Playhouse has a distinguished record with musicals: Company, Mack & Mabel, Victor/Victoria, Floyd Collins, Parade and most recently, the absolutely brilliant Titanic, which should have transferred straight to the West End.
The AZ of Mrs P, a new British musical, is, sadly, not in the same league as the above shows. Mrs P was Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1990), a Bohemian artist, who mapped London in the late 1930’s. The twee poster makes you think it is going to be very whimsical, a Mary Poppins fantasy, perhaps, and aimed at children.
The story goes that Pearsall in 1936 got lost on her way to friends for dinner and arrived when they were serving the dessert. The incident spurred her to produce the iconic AZ. She claimed she had walked 3,000 miles to do it.
The musical loses its way, too. It’s all over the place. The drama is provided by Pearsall’s awful father, Gross in name and gross in Behaviour, who drove his wife mad and treated his daughter in a despicable manner. Diane Samuels, who wrote the book, is the author of Kindertransport, which is now touring the UK.
There are lots of songs, almost too many songs; but somehow they never add up to a musical. When Neil Marcus, the producer, approached Gwyneth Herbert to write the music and lyrics, she had never seen a staged musical; and this may explain why the show, full of good things though it is, doesn’t really work.
Sam Butrock’s production, staged en traverse, is as busy as the numerous hangings from the ceiling. Isy Suttie (whom you may have seen on TV in Peep Show) is an endearing heroine. Michael Matus gives a strong performance as the father; and it is the father, an absolute monster, who dominates the stage.