Tucked away behind the Shipwrights Arms pub, round the corner from London Bridge Station, is the stunningly atmospheric Southwark Playhouse, currently home to the passionate Parisian musical Victor/Victoria.
The show is set in the treacherous showbiz world of 1930s Paris. Victoria Grant is a British soprano with an enchanting voice who is struggling to catch her break in a world run by men. Finding herself at the end of her rope, Victoria gladly welcomes the friendship of Toddy, an out-of-work gay club singer who, after seeing her dressed in his ex-lover's clothes, is struck by an inspirational idea that could make her the biggest star in Paris.
And so Victoria becomes Count Victor Grazinski, the world's greatest female impersonator. Disguised as a man pretending to be a woman, Victoria's showbiz dreams come true as she takes the Paris club scene by storm.
Life as "her own man" works splendidly for Victoria until she realises she is in love. Now she must choose between her freedom as a man, or a life with the man of her dreams as a woman.
This is a musical I knew very little about and I'm thrilled to have discovered it in such an intimate setting. As we entered, my friend and I were greeted with a "Welcome to the London Dungeons", from a passer-by. The theatre certainly has a slight underground feel, nestled beneath the railway lines so that throughout the performance the faint clatter of the Northern line can be heard overhead.
The Vault at the Southwark Playhouse was styled to resemble a Parisian cabaret club, including the option of cabaret seating at the edge of the stage. While the seats filled up a fantastic pianist entertained the audience with lively tunes to get us in the spirit, occasionally singing in (to my untrained ears) perfect French. A magician was also touring the front rows doing card tricks, and waiters in waistcoats bustled about with trays of wine. We were absorbed in 1930s Paris before it began.
When the lights went down we realised that the cabaret club staff were really the cast, who stepped straight into their roles and captured our hearts with the dark humour and extraordinary tenderness of the performance.
Anna Francolini (Victoria) and Richard Dempsey (Toddy) complimented each other perfectly and both showed a winning combination of hardiness and vulnerability that endeared them to me immediately. Francolini in particular has a sublime voice that is comparable to Julie Andrews.
The supporting actors/dancers/singers also deserve a mention and a hand. Their energy levels and talent never faltered despite constant movement, quick changes and what must be the most intense and astounding performance of Le Jazz Hot in existence.
The way the stage area was laid out, with seating down both sides and an entrance at each end, meant that there was an impressive amount to look at the whole time, with a main performance going on at one end and usually a minor scene full of subtext happening elsewhere on the stage. While this gave me slight tennis-match neck ache from trying to see everything, it was fascinating and enjoyable to experience so much at once and it provided wonderful context throughout the story. I imagine that there is something new to discover with every performance as a subtle yet meaningful look can be missed while you're watching some glitz and glamour upstage.
The whole performance, from the cabaret atmosphere to the lively and catchy score by Henry Mancini, was thoroughly engrossing and endlessly enjoyable. The moment it was over I was planning when I could see it again.