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How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Corporate life has never been easy. Getting to the top of the ladder is the hope and dream of many a poor underling working in, for example, the mailroom. A million self-help books on how to rise have been written but only one is proven to be successful. That book is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and you can have a read as it has touched down at the Southwark Playhouse.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Danny Lane and Gabrielle Friedman. Pamela Raith Photography.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Danny Lane and Gabrielle Friedman. Pamela Raith Photography.

J. Pierrepont Finch (Gabrielle Friedman) is a window cleaner with ambition. Whilst squeegees and shammy leathers are OK for now, they see themselves moving onwards and upwards, and they have just the book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (voiced by Michelle Visage). By following its simple rules Finch makes their first entry into the corporate world, joining World Wide Wickets in the mailroom. The company is headed by the much respected – and feared – J.B. Biggley (Tracie Bennett) and it’s not long before Finch sets their sight on moving up the ladder and closer to the boss. Unfortunately, they have a rival in the shape of Biggley’s nephew Bud Frump (Elliot Gooch) who also has executive aspirations. However, Finch – with the aid of the book – is making all the right contacts, HR Manager Bert Bratt (Taylor Bradshaw) for one and, maybe more importantly Biggley’s Secretary Miss Jones (Grace Kanyamibwa). Finch has another ally in secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Allie Daniel) who not only knows much about World Wide Wickets but has also fallen in love with Finch. With the combination of the book and his allies, will anything stop Finch from achieving their goal?

One of the strangest facts about How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is that it was written in 1961. The reason this is so strange is that Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert’s Book (with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) feels pretty contemporary. Having worked in the corporate world, I can confirm that elements of the story are not that far-fetched – believe me I’ve seen a department of business professionals go to pieces because there was no coffee first thing in the morning. So, the overall story works, and the songs are pretty great. I found myself humming ‘Brotherhood of Man’ on my journey home. Another song that really spoke to me – and is probably not that reflective of the contemporary world – was ‘Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm’. This song, sung by Miss Pilkington really demonstrates the way that a woman’s ambition in life was limited to making a good marriage to a darling bright young man, and being ready to bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect as they support their husband while he goes onward, and upward. There is also ‘A Secretary Is Not a Toy’ which back in 1961 would have as quite a shock to many a corporate executive. Both are reflective of their time but are pretty uplifting to hear now when we think of how we’ve come from those ideas.

Director Georgie Rankcom has made an interesting choice to ignore gender when casting the show and, whilst I initially had doubts, it works really well. Tracie Bennett in particular seems to have a lot of fun playing Biggley and gives a wonderful impression of the archetypal ‘boss man’ in 1960s corporate America. Elliot Gooch hams it up beautifully as the spoilt nephew Bud and plays the role of a camp pantomime villain in wonderful attire. Allie Daniel’s as Rosemary Pilkington stood out for me as the performance of the night. With a wonderful stage presence, singing voice and ability to convey so much with a simple look, Daniel really excelled in a cast of great performers.

There is a lot to like about this production. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography keeps everyone looking good and not banging into each other around Sophia Pardon’s colourful set, complete with a massive illuminated corporate ladder running from floor to ceiling. Having the band Under Musical Director Natalie Pound sitting above the performance area was a great move and meant the music didn’t drown out the singers, which is always a bonus. I loved Michelle Visage as the voice of the book but did feel the book itself was under-used in the story. I’m not sure using a thrust stage works that well for certain areas of the audience who, from where I was sat, appeared to have their sightlines blocked at times and weren’t always able to see everything that was happening towards the front of the stage or on the ladder.

As I say, lots to like about this production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and yet, despite the efforts of a great cast and some marvellous songs, something was missing from me. I’ve been trying to work out what and still am not sure. I just know that by the end, I just felt that an opportunity had been missed.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

This is a really good production, if a bit too long, but I can’t help feeling an opportunity to make it truly spectacular has been missed.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a comic gem that took Broadway by storm in 1961, winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize. It boasts an exhilarating score by Frank Loesser – one of America’s great composer/lyricists, also responsible for ‘Guys & Dolls’ (currently a massive hit at the Bridge Theatre) – including ‘I Believe in You’, ‘Brotherhood of Man’ and ‘The Company Way’.

A satire of big business and all it holds sacred, it follows the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, who uses a little handbook called How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (voiced in the Southwark production by Michelle Visage of ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ fame) to climb the corporate ladder from lowly window washer to high-powered executive, tackling such familiar but potent dangers as the aggressively compliant “company man”, the office party, backstabbing co-workers, caffeine addiction and, of course, true love.

Annie Aitken (she/her) as Hedy LaRue.
Taylor Bradshaw (he/him) as Mr Bert Bratt.
Allie Daniel (she/her) as Rosemary Pilkington.
Gabrielle Friedman (she/they) as J. Pierrepont Finch.
Elliot Gooch (he/him) as Bud Frump.
Grace Kanyamibwa (she/her) as Miss Jones.
Danny Lane (he/him) as Mr Twimble/Mr Wally Womper.
Milo McCarthy (they/them) as Mr Milton Gatch.
Verity Power (she/her) as Smitty.
Tracie Bennett (she/her) as J.B. Biggley

Creative Team:
Director Georgie Rankcom (they/them)
Choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento (she/her)
Musical Director Natalie Pound (she/her)
Set and Costume Designer Sophia Pardon (she/her)
Lighting Designer Lucía Sánchez Roldán (she/her)
Sound Designer Joshua Robins (he/him)
Orchestrator Stuart Morley (he/him)
Stage Manager Waverley Moran (she/they)
Production Manager Misha Mah (they/them),
Casting Director Peter Noden (he/him)
Producer / General Manager Jodee Conrad (she/her).

Big Con Productions and The Grey Area

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’
Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock
& Willie Gilbert
Based on the novel by Shepherd Mead

Southwark Playhouse (Borough)
77-85 Newington Causeway,
London, SE1 6BD
12 May – 17 June 2023

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