Unless I missed it (and it is quite impossible to nod off during such a vibrant production like Ain’t Misbehavin’), there is only the bare minimum amount of exposition about Fats Waller (1904-1943) in a show that seems to have the sole aim of packing in as many of the songs associated with him (I’ve no idea whether he wrote them all or not) as is feasible. You’d honestly find the Wikipedia entry for Waller far more insightful than the show, which is almost wall-to-wall song and dance, dance and song, thirty songs across two acts, each forty-five minutes long, comprising all-out, all-American fun, nothing more and nothing less.
What’s wrong with that? Fundamentally, nothing, especially when the tunes are performed as well as they are here. Just don’t expect to be enlightened about Waller or American jazz of the 1920s and 1930s in general if you aren’t already fairly clued up on it. There were a couple of lovely moments when an older couple in the audience were swaying along to a song, which they were clearly familiar with. Not all the song titles and lyrics have stood the test of time – take ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’: wouldn’t it be an email or a YouTube video these days?
The cast (Adrian Hansel, Renée Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo and Wayne Robinson) are put through their paces through Oti Mabuse’s well-paced and sophisticated choreography, which added much to a production that could have been a stale, stand-and-deliver affair. It’s Strictly Come Dancing meets Beale Street, Memphis. Waller was never afraid of passing comment on people’s personal appearance – his actual first name was Thomas, but he was himself dubbed ‘Fats’ without irony. In ‘Fat and Greasy’, the audience hears about a man with “big fat liver lips / Shakes like jelly ‘round his hips”, and then there’s a woman that's impossible to dance with because her feet are too big: “Oh your pedal extremities are colossal / To me you look just like a fossil”.
Tyrone Huntley, making his directorial debut, has created something simple but nonetheless slick. A small band of five, led by Alex Cockle on piano, were sublime from beginning to end but opportunities for the band to really let rip and shine on their own without lyrical accompaniment are sparing and momentary. The drummer, Blake Cascoe, was in a separate off-stage isolation booth; it is a pity that space constraints on performance space did not allow for the drum kit to be onstage with everyone else.
Whatever went on with Waller outside his performance schedule was clearly another play (or musical) for another time. There’s a good sense of humour that repeatedly permeates proceedings, and this is a show that puts smiles on many audience members’ faces. A relatively brief but highly enjoyable production.
At Southwark Playhouse until 1 June 2019.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.