Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN • Novello Theatre • 2007

NovelloTheatreIn the late 70s, punk was raging against fascist regimes. By the 80s, pop was embracing the emergent material world. Debbie Harry brought sophistication to cutting edge punk as the singer in Blondie; Madonna put a bit of trashy attitude into mainstream pop. When Debbie Harry appeared on TOTP to perform ‘Denis, Denis’ wearing nothing but a man’s shirt, she was the epitome of everything a plump young girl watching her on telly yearned to be. You could be gorgeous AND a punk. A few years later Madonna, from a totally different point on the musical spectrum, took material girl aspiration to new heights, gyrating to her hit single ‘Holiday’ at Manchester’s ultra hip Hacienda Club.

Both these women were very, very different. So was their sound, so was their image. This is why it is surprising to hear that Blondie songs have been spliced into the story of Desperately Seeking Susan, originally a film vehicle for Madonna. It is a mystery why anyone would choose to do this instead of either writing an original script on which to hang Blondie songs, like We Will Rock You does with Queen tunes, or just using Madonna songs to underpin the story. As it stands, fans in either the Blondie or the Madonna camps come away from this stage version feeling a bit disappointed.

With a hot-tub salesman husband, Roberta is bored in her New Jersey married life and reads the personal ads for a little diversion. When she sees the mysterious sounding ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ small ad, the sprightly saga of mistaken identity is set in motion. Roberta somehow gets hold of Susan’s striking pyramid motif jacket and the chase is on. Roberta becomes embroiled, quite happily, in Susan’s life. Along the way the plot is liberally embroidered with Blondie songs. Eventually the baddies are foiled; Roberta falls for the film buff; Susan gets her rock singer man.

The show is a bit of punk, a bit of pop; a bit of Madonna, a bit of Debbie Harry; Susan’s outfits are fashioned on the film; the strong finale is a tableau of Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’ album cover brought to life. In short, Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t have an identity of its own. It doesn’t know what it wants to be – a ripping yarn, a comedy, a homage, or just a good old-fashioned, high-spirited musical.

Desperately Seeking Susan is not a bad show at all but it just cannot make its mind up where to focus. To take the ID swap to a conclusion means Susan settled as a domestic goddess – which doesn’t happen. To have a punk soundtrack means commitment to the songs but instead they are mostly reined in to anodyne middle-of-the-road.

The show is smartly cast and the leads handle the vagueness of production identity as well as they can. Emma Williams as Susan is at her best getting those Blondie numbers out with attitude and confidence. It can’t be easy to sing convincingly – as Kelly Price does as Roberta – when you are one half of a magician’s sawn-up body. Neither can it be easy to play the villain – as Stephen Houghton does – running full tilt on a travelator, all the while singing ‘One Way Or Another’. The travelator being the prop de jour for the set designer, it is so well used.

The original writer, Peter Michael Marino, has reworked the lines, dropping a few Blondie and Madonna song titles into the script for a bit of a laugh and there are some splashes of delight: a chase on the travelator is chaotic and high-spirited with everything and the clothes racks being thrown in the way, the pulsating intro of ‘Heart of Glass’, still as fresh and hypnotic as ever, reverberating from the hidden band, and Steven Serlin’s trio of hapless and geeky characters proving that you don’t have to be the lead to give a starring performance.

On balance, Desperately Seeking Susan just about manages to win you over. The show ends with an exuberant flourish as the cast kick out ‘Call Me’ with abandon.

Desperately Seeking Susan is not a particularly auspicious addition to the list of shows at the beautifully renovated Novello Theatre, but neither is it a disaster.

The real shame is that it has no clear direction: it can’t make up its mind whether to go ”One Way Or Another.

Evie Rackham © 2007

Originally published on R&V 21-11-07


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