REVIEW: Distress? This damsel will impress!

A Damsel in Distress. Photo: Joan Persson
A Damsel in Distress. Photo: Joan Persson

A Damsel In Distress, a new stage musical at Chichester Festival Theatre based on the novel by P.G Wodehouse with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin.

The British Empire may have been ruled by its aristocracy.

But in the world of P.G. Wodehouse that highest strata of society was itself under the command of a force more powerful than military and nature combined: the redoubtable aunt.

She struck fear into the lives of every anodyne male toff that stumbled off the typewriter of Mr Wodehouse, calling them to order and reducing the likes of Bertie Wooster to a quivering wreck from which Jeeves alone could save him.

Although A Damsel In Distress is not a Jeeves and Wooster tale, the aunt is no less a defiant hallmark of the plot.

She knows who should marry who and expresses that view with all the vigour of a blowtorch in full flame.

But the worm will turn and true love will have its way.

This is a new stage musical, but A Damsel has existed in just about every other format since the early 20th century. It began life as a newspaper serialisation, manifested itself as a novel in 1919, was translated into a play before becoming a film musical in 1937 starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, and Gracie Allen.

Today’s magnificent revival preserves the Gershwins’ amazing music and song while allowing the Festival Theatre to exploit all the wonders of its £22m makeover with a moving set that is in itself a work of art.

The designers have created the Gloucestershire mansion Totleigh Towers almost ancient stone by ancient stone to deliver a truly visual feast.

Add in all the energy of song and dance lightly whipped with Wodehouse’s humour and you have a piece of summer magic.

The plot itself is a typical romance. Will every man end up with the girl of his dreams despite the best efforts of the aunt to derail them and impose her own manifesto?

Director and choreographer Rob Ashford and designer Christopher Oram both deserve their own encores. As for the cast there’s a real spring in their step and joy in their smile as Downton Abbey meets vaudeville.

Some great cameos not least from David Roberts and Chloe Hart; the damsel Maud (Summer Strallen) strikes just the right balance between beautiful vulnerability and romantic obstinacy; but the show belongs to Richard Fleeshman who plays George Bevan - a famous American songwriter who rescues his very English damsel locked in a tower.

Fleeshman has it all and will wow the Chichester audiences.

If you want an evening of pure escape, follow their lead to the CFT this season.