Daniel Evans, artistic director of Chichester Festival theatre, acknowledges that when a director takes to the stage before a show begins, it usually means there is news. And in this case, his news sends a ripple of disappointment around the theatre: Matt Lucas, the star of Me and My Girl, has been advised by a throat specialist to rest his voice. So his understudy, Ryan Pidgen, will be playing the role of Bill Snibson, the cockney geezer who discovers – to the astonishment of all – that he is the next Duke of Hareford.
The audience are not disappointed for long. Pidgen had only a few hours to practise, but it is hard to imagine he and his co-stars could have done a better job after a month of rehearsals. He lands every joke with Lucasian aplomb. “Aperitif, my lord?” inquires a snooty butler. “No, you’re alright, I’ve got me own,” Pidgen replies, rolling his eyes in bafflement. He sings and dances beautifully, too. And simply negotiating your way around a stage packed with other dancers when you’ve had almost no time to rehearse (Pidgen usually plays the role of the chef) is impressive, quite aside from taking the lead in a number like The Lambeth Walk.
There is a certain energy in a show when the understudy steps up: everyone has to reassess how they play every scene (Pidgen is considerably taller than Lucas, for a start). Alex Young, who plays Bill’s sweetheart, Sally, brings sincerity and affection to their relationship. Her voice is clear and sweet, just as Sally should be. She too has excellent comic timing. “My aunt’s a duchess,” Bill explains to her. “So that makes me-” “Dutch,” she kindly replies.
Even so, Caroline Quentin, as Bill’s aunt Maria, the duchess who decides she must make Bill into a viable duke, comes close to stealing the show. She is an aunt straight out of Wodehouse: all tweed, sensible shoes and absolute refusal to countenance failure. Whenever Bill or her longstanding friend Sir John try to remonstrate with her, she is frankly terrifying. “Oh, do be quiet, you futile man,” she snaps. And yet, she has a kindly streak, an adventurous spirit which all her formidable gargoyle reputation cannot quite disguise.
With music by Noel Gay and book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber – later revised by Stephen Fry and Mike Ockrent – Me and My Girl is not a sophisticated musical: its fish-out-of-water plot is entirely predictable and the reference to My Fair Lady (when Sir John decides to send Sally for elocution lessons) doesn’t muddy those waters at all. Although Rose and Furber’s songs are catchy, they’re sometimes rather pedestrian. This production is directed with gusto, although it loses pace at the start of the second act. Lez Brotherston’s country house set has a clever forced perspective to make it appear even grander and larger than it is. As for the costumes: quite aside from the sparkly frocks, the farmers in the local pub have tap-wellingtons, which is a tremendous choice.
The only real problem is the sound: the orchestra is so loud – to combat the mighty noise of so many sets of tap shoes, presumably – that the vocals get rather lost in the mix. Everyone is forced to sing at full pelt all the time, which robs the show of some texture. But its heart is so firmly in the right place that it is impossible to be too grouchy about such things.