Call me cynical, but when a story is described as heart-warming, I always worry that it is going to be twee. When that adjective is applied to a musical, and an American musical at that, I instantly assume that it is going to be so saccharin as to make my teeth physically ache.
I have never been so glad to be proved wrong. The Spitfire Grill certainly is heart-warming, but it is also sincere, thought-provoking, and a jolly good story. Not to mention the original, toe-tapping tunes which get into your head and refuse to be dislodged, no matter how hard you try.
Young Percy Talbot has been in prison for five years. Upon her release, she (yes, she – Percy is short for Perchance, apparently) heads straight for the little town of Gilead, Wisconsin, for the simple reason that she has seen a picture of it in a travel book, and it looked nice, and she has nowhere else to go. Upon her arrival the local Sheriff puts her to work in the one and only place to eat in town – The Spitfire Grill, run by the elderly, acerbic Hannah. It soon becomes clear that Percy is not the only person who needs help – a shadow from the past hangs over the little town, suffocating the residents. Could Percy be the breath of fresh air that Gilead has been waiting for – and by saving them, can she also save herself?
The talent on the stage is simply breath-taking; everybody can act, everybody can sing, and everybody offers up their characters, warts and all, with an innocence and honesty which melts the heart. Belinda Wollaston, as Percy, is utterly charming. Her expressive, gamin face and her graceless, stompy movements make her intensely loveable, despite everything. Hilary Harwood is a marvellously grumpy Hannah, stubbornly hiding years of heartbreak behind a dour façade. Natalie Law has a more understated role as Shelby, Percy’s friend, but her subtle transformation as the play progresses is no less moving for that. You feel a sense of unity and cohesion between all of the actors, which makes their little community all the more believable.
Director Alastair Knights has wisely gone for simplicity; the set consists of little more than a table and a few chairs, and the props, except for the truly significant ones, are largely imaginary. This underlines the contrast between the unpretentious, unadorned little town and the troubled complexity of the residents, which is thrown into sharp relief. The songs, by James Valcq and Fred Alley, are alternately rousing and moving, and all performed with brio by both the cast and the band. The sound levels are perfectly balanced, no easy feat for such a small theatre.
The one thing I would say is that I would have liked to see more made of the change wrought in the Grill and in the residents themselves by Percy’s arrival. We hear about it in the songs, but it would have been nice to see it. I’m not sure how that could have been achieved; sound effects, lighting, a few extras maybe? I don’t know. Anyway, that is really mere quibble on my part. The Spitfire Grill is a delight; original, fun, moving, and yes, heart-warming. Congratulations to all involved.
Review by Genni Trickett
The Union Theatre Presents: The UK Professional Premiere of the Multi-Award Winning Musical
THE SPITFIRE GRILL
Music & Book by James Valcq
Lyrics & Book by Fred Alley
Based on the Film by Lee David Zlotoff
Director – Alastair Knights
Musical Director – Simon Holt
Choreographer – Lee Crawley
Cast includes Belinda Wollaston, Hilary Harwood, Natalie Law, Katie Brennan, Hans Rye, Chris Kiely and Andrew Borthwick.
23rd July 2015 – 15th August 2015
Tuesday – Sunday 7.30PM (Matinee Performances Saturday & Sunday 3PM)
The Union Theatre is pleased to announce the UK Professional Premiere production of ‘The Spitfire Grill’ by James Valcq and Fred Alley based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. The production is directed by Alastair Knights (Putting It Together, A Little Night Music 40th Anniversary Concert), with Musical Direction by Simon Holt (Love Never Dies, Phantom of the Opera International Tour) and Choreography by Lee Crawley.
Chosen by Stephen Sondheim to be the recipient of 2001 Richard Rogers Production Award this multi-award winning musical follows recently paroled convict Percy Talbott, who is looking for somewhere to start over, and rural Gilead, Wisconsin, seems just the place. She takes a job at the Spitfire Grill, a crumbling diner where the townsfolk congregate and gossip, run by a feisty widow named Hannah. Hannah has been trying to sell the diner to escape from the painful memories it holds, but the property has been on the market for a decade with no takers. Soon, Percy hatches a plan to hold a raffle for ownership of the Spitfire Grill—for one hundred dollars and an essay about why they might want the Grill, anyone can enter the contest. As the seasons change and rumours about her past build, the contest entries begin to roll in, and Percy starts to realize that she’s not the only person in Gilead with a history.