Big Business: How to succeed in business without really trying @swkplay

This revival of the Frank Loesser musical is as much about climbing the corporate ladder as it is about giving a fresh take on the absurdity of the office and gender roles.  However, there's also a firm appreciation that this is a musical comedy.  And with an energetic cast with an impeccable sense of comic timing, it's a hilarious and thought-provoking evening.  It's currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse.

The show comes from a parody of a self-help business book.  The premise is that a lowly window washer becomes board chairman in a few weeks and gets the girl.  Along the way, there are stupid bosses, sexist colleagues and nepotism. 

Only this time, J Pierpoint Finch is played by Gabrielle Friedman.  Depending on your perspective, Finch is either the hero or the antihero of the piece, stopping at nothing in their ambition to reach the top.  Here Finch is more sympathetic as the underappreciated service worker getting a lucky break and a chance to climb the corporate ladder.  You can't help but root for Friedman's Finch as they plot, scheme and steal the ideas of the others to reach the top.  Opposite Friedman is trans actor Allie Daniel as the secretary Rosemary who has been on a fruitless search to find an executive to marry so she can move to the suburbs of New York with all the other lonely homemakers.

Other twists in the casting include Tracie Bennett as the overbearing boss J.B. Biggley who is hilarious as the alpha-male boss with a penchant for knitting.  She swaggers about the stage talking nonsense that's both striking in its accuracy and parody of the alpha-male office boss (of both yesteryear and today).  Other cast members such as Verity Power as Rosemary's friend Smitty, Elliot Gooch as the boss's nephew and Annie Aitken as the under-qualified secretary and J.B.'s mistress give this show its biggest laughs. 

It's a challenging musical, not just because of its take on sexual politics.  On one level, it feels like a series of comic sketches set to music.  This is particularly apparent in the first act, which runs for almost an hour and a half.  But this production doesn't let any chance to milk the comic potential of each scene pass by.  From the characters' inflexions to an inventive use of kazoos that are part of the score (they are made to look like the characters playing them are on a cigarette break).  And when the cast came together for the big finale number, the audience cheered in response to the energy and musicality on stage. 

The staging is minimalistic, which also becomes a joke in the show.  But in case you were wondering what the show is about, a large illuminated ladder dominates the piece.  Windows washers, climbing the corporate ladder, or bridging from the not-so-distant past to the present culture wars.  Whatever it is intended to mean, the show is also determined to ensure you have a great time. 

Directed by Georgie Rankcom, with music direction by Natalie Pound, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is at the Southwark Playhouse until 17 June. 


Photos by Pamela Raith

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