Directed by Mark Giesser and the inspiration for the Peter Sellers’ comedy The Mouse That Roared – where a small European country is at war with the United States – Strike Up The Band is a lesser-known Gershwin musical with a satirical edge.
Horace J. Fletcher (Richard Emerson) is the owner of America’s largest manufacturer of cheese. While the American Cheese Company enjoys a domestic monopoly, its exports overseas are met with resistance by Switzerland, leading to mutual tariff reprisals. Offering to pay for a US-sanctioned war to protect America’s ‘economic interests’, ‘Fletcher’s war’ is sanctioned by the president’s confidential advisor, Colonel Holmes (Robert Finlayson). But not everyone is comfortable with this turn of events, or the legality of this course of action.
Very much a social satire, at the forefront of Strike Up The Band are the burgeoning romances between certain characters. Socialite Joan (Beth Burrows) – who also happens to be the daughter of Fletcher – isn’t best pleased about a write-up of her by journalist Jim Townsend (Paul Biggin). However, this proves to be a catalyst for their playful banter and their mutual attraction. The only snag is Joan already has a fiancé – C. Edgar Sloane (Nicholas McBride)…
Meanwhile, for socialite Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) and her daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen), they both set their sights on someone at the cheese factory – Fletcher and foreman Timothy Harper (Adam Scott Pringle) respectively. Harper is very much in love with Anne, but Fletcher doesn’t show interest in Mrs Draper – at least until he and Colonel Holmes are privy to a piece of gossip. And then there’s George Spelvin (David Francis). Bringing surreal intrigue to the proceedings, Spelvin’s presence hints at subterfuge taking place, but how and why this is important leaves the audience guessing.
If there’s one thing that dampens the enjoyment of the show, it’s that some of singing isn’t audible, leaving the audience straining to hear the vocals. Hopefully this issue will be fixed and while it doesn’t occur from beginning to end, when it happens it is very noticeable.
On a more positive note, the individual performers get their chance to shine, whether it is in spots such as Sammy Graham’s dancing at the end of act 1, or my personal highlight of the evening, Burrows and Biggin’s rendition of the classic The Man I Love.
With regards to the tone and topicality of the ‘book’, its satirical prescience shows the link between lobbyists, government and ‘patriotism’. It’s noteworthy in the show that when news of the war starts spreading, it is the people who won’t be conscripted and will gain financially from it who are its biggest supporters – mirroring events in the 20th and 21st century.
While these insights are treated in a satirical fashion, the surreal and romantic threads contribute to the levity of the show, keeping the focus firmly on the irrationality of people. After all, why go to war over cheese?
© Michael Davis 2019
Strike Up The Band runs at ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ (Highgate Village, London, N6 4BD) until 31st March.