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Now, it’s not often that I leave a theatre humming the curtain call number, but that’s just what happened after the Garrick Theatre‘s The Solid Gold Cadillac. As a child, my favourite crackly old 75 (way before the days of vinyl) was Spike Jones and his City Slickers’ rendition of ‘Holiday for Strings’. Anyone old enough to remember, or astute enough to be an aficionado of Forties musical pastiche, will know exactly what this mad and joyous song sounds like. As I wandered home I was uplifted by the silliness of this particular trip down memory lane.
That neatly leads me on to The Solid Gold Cadillac itself. As a piece of theatrical history, this production is fascinating. Co-written by Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman, Solid Gold first hit Broadway back in November 1953. After the Crash of the 1930s and the wartime austerity of the 1940s, by 1953 corporate greed was already an issue which, if not yet the subject of mass global rallies, was still the stuff of comic attack.
This play, for play it is, although the title certainly suggests a Fifties musical, tackles corporate greed from the eyes of little America, those ten and twenty-dollar share folk who vote for their board of directors by proxy, and who seldom hear from their company except for a small dividend cheque at the end of each financial year. The premise of Solid Gold is that the lone little old lady can put an enormous spanner in the works if she decides to flex her tiny shareholding muscle.
I have said it’s a piece of theatrical history. George S. Kaufman collaborated in 1928 on what I consider the funniest of the Marx Brothers shows, Animal Crackers, way before it was converted into a movie. Kaufman was writing for consummate vaudeville performers, studying their comic form and adapting their personality traits to create a manic whole. Anyone who watched the recent TV documentary on the development of American-Jewish comedy, and marvelled at the writing genius of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen for Sid Caesar, will recognize the legacy they owe to men such as Kaufman.The Solid Gold Cadillac rests firmly in this tradition of slick one-liners, vaudeville set pieces, and an American-Jewish humour which became the benchmark for comic writing the world over.
How does this distinctly quaint English revival of a very unique and difficult American genre of comedy stand up to criticism? Here is the point. The Solid Gold Cadillac has opened in the West End to mixed reviews. The reviewers, like myself, are fed a diet of thought-provoking, challenging and enlightening entertainment. This production should never be reviewed, should never be intellectually analysed. Obviously, from the reaction of the packed house last night, this is a production which should be savoured like a transatlantic wine. A sweet wine that caters to the palate of middle England.
The auditorium was full of punters who seldom come to the West End save for the odd coach trip to a Lloyd-Webber musical. The draw of two iconic television names, Patricia Routledge and Roy Hudd, is sufficient to plant bums on seats in abundance. They got what they came for. Two accomplished professionals only vaguely masking their British television personas enacting an inoffensive, occasionally mildly naughty, story from over the pond. Solid Gold Cadillac does what it sets out to do, it makes its audience laugh. This isn’t cutting edge humour; it is light and pleasant and warm, like a cup of late-night Horlicks.
Routledge and Hudd work so well together — there is obviously a mutual respect and professional rapport that allows them to cruise through this light comedy with ease. Obviously written for well-tuned vaudevillians in the New York tradition, the roles that Routledge and Hudd portray may lose something in translation, but their own characters are never far from view. Hudd’s eyes still sparkle with Max Miller cheekiness, and Hyacinth Bucket has taken a small apartment in the Bronx. Otherwise, all is exactly as you’d expect.
The supporting cast fulfil their functions with apparent ease, each character a stereotype recognizable from an RKO movie. Lucy Briers as the secretary with a heart of gold, Miss Amelia Shotgraven, displays all the comic timing of her illustrious family heritage. Briers is the frumpy turned sexy do-gooder who gets her man. Nick Haverson plays this man, the mail delivery boy who gauchely asks the young lady to accompany him to the movies. Kate-Lynn Hocking plays a number of similarly sexy secretary roles; her physical mirroring of her boss’s exercise routine a slickly executed piece of stage business.
Of course, in any good pantomime there has to be the baddy, or in this case the baddies. The board of this particular conglomerate who swallow up small companies and spit them out with equal glee, is made up of Michael Elwyn, David Ross, Fred Ridgeway and Teddy Kempner. A fine distinction is drawn between each of these characters, with Kempner’s oily accountant and Ridgeway’s ineffectual company secretary complementing Ross’s cigar toting vice chairman and Elwyn’s licentious chairman. The four successfully draw every last drop of humour from these caricatures of Fifties American businessmen.
The Solid Gold Cadillac is directed by Ian Brown, who highlights its American pedigree without forcing it down our throats. Ruari Murchison’s set design is subtle and appealing. Visually reminiscent of comic book cartoons, the luscious New York skyline and towering skyscrapers are hinted at through primary colour windows. The offices are as red white and blue as an Andy Warhol print; as Routledge clears out her desk, among the red galoshes and coffee percolators, hair rollers and party hats, are two cans of Crosse and Blackwell condensed soup completing Murchison’s homage to Warholesque design.
The Solid Gold Cadillac is nothing more than light entertainment. It strives to amuse and, according to the audience, succeeds admirably. As a vehicle for two of our stately comic actors, this Cadillac may need a tune-up to keep it going, but this reviewer is convinced that many of you will thoroughly enjoy this drive down another culture’s memory lane.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004
Originally published on R&V 30-09-04
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