For the next month the Landor Theatre in Clapham is home to a revival of the very American and very 1950s musical Damn Yankees. The production is impressively slick and infectiously good fun.
Joe Boyd (Gary Bland) is an overweight, disappointed middle-aged man with a passion for baseball: but his team, the Washington Senators, suck. His wife Meg laments that she becomes a baseball widow, singing “Six Months Out of Every Year”. When Joe says that he’d give his soul to see the Washington Senators do well, Mr Applegate (Richard D Ellis), the Devil in disguise, arrives with an extraordinary deal. For ownership of his soul, he’ll make Boyd a baseball star. Naturally, Boyd accepts and becomes the young Joe Hardy, saviour of the Washington Senators. But he misses his wife and his old life, and wonders if there’s any way out of his deal?
Okay so the plot is extremely hokey, and yet another variation on the German legend of Faust. Having suffered through the execrable nonsense of the Rod Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night, which is founded on a similar premise, our hearts sank – but what Damn Yankees lacks in original plotting it makes up for with humour and exuberant musical numbers.
Robert McWhir solidly directs a show peppered with big numbers, defying the small stage with large ambition. Some of the song and dance routines are testosterone-driven, with “Heart” seeing the baseball team of strapping young men performed in nothing but towels. It’s hard not to be carried away by the good-natured fun.
There is one outstanding performance that raises Damn Yankees up a notch, and that is Jonathan D Ellis’ turn as hot, saucy devil Mr Applegate. Bringing every ounce of humour out of the source material, as well as crafting his own delicious ad-libs, Ellis is simply a joy to behold. Our ribs were aching by the end of the show, and rated solely on his performance; Damn Yankees would be five stars.
The other two leads are very good. Alex Lodge is dependable as Joe Hardy, though his strong suit is diffidence rather than heroism; whilst Poppy Tierney makes for a seductive Lola. Tierney is strong on comedy, but occasionally vocally quiet on the songs. We also enjoyed Tony Stansfield’s affable turn as the coach; and the delightful double act of Elizabeth Futter and Leah Pinney as Gloria and Doris.
The period piece nature of the show is evidenced by the way in which Joe’s wife Meg (Nova Skipp) is willing to accept her husband’s behaviour with no questions asked: but aside from its patronising attitude towards women, Damn Yankees stands up well six decades after its inauguration. This production is well worth seeing thanks to some excellent comic performances.