Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre
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31 Aug REVIEW: Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre

TMM02 When self-proclaimed “modern,” Millie Dillmount arrives in New York City, she has only one thing on her mind: to find herself a wealthy boss that she can make her husband. It’s certainly not a “modern” aspiration by today’s standards, but this is the roaring 20’s; prohibition is in full force, hemlines are creeping upwards and a fictional Jay Gatsby is taking up residence in West Egg.

As our impressionable protagonist, Francesca Lara Gordon is incredibly well cast, every part the sweet and well-intentioned, yet determinedly feisty young woman of her character, with a loveliness about her voice and performance that’s nothing short of irresistible. Alongside her as Millie’s more monied counterpart, Sarah-Marie Maxwell proves to be equally well suited to Miss Dorothy, excelling in her un-mic’ed vocal delivery, and convincing in her characterisation.

But despite being set in a decade of art deco, flappers and the charleston, Iliffe’s Thoroughly Modern Millie struggles to evoke the glitz of the Jazz age; sprayed-gold scenery and what seems to be an unevenly-attached geometric wall sticker attempt a nod to the glamour of the era, but the reality is a facade sadder than Gatsby’s crumbling mansion.

It’s rescued, however, by the sequins and fur of the costume department, and some gorgeous 20s-style choreography that creates bursts of energy, most memorably in “The Speed Test,” a high-octane ensemble number in which Millie seeks to prove her prowess as a stenographer. Between bursts, though, the vigour and ambition do feel constrained by the dimensions of the stage – disappointing as other productions haven’t had quite the same trouble in the same venue – but nonetheless it goes some way towards capturing the style and sparkle of the time.

Whilst it’s disappointing that Millie’s plans are quite so uninspiring, and that the staging falls just a little bit flat, there is one aspect of Thoroughly Modern Millie that really is offensive: the inclusion, and depiction of the hotelier that accommodates Millie, Mrs Meers. It’s clear from the outset that something strange is going on inside the Priscilla Hotel, but an ambiguous taste in the mouth sours as it emerges that Mrs Meers is actually (and very obviously) a white American woman pretending to be Chinese (?), embroiled in a “white slavery” sub-plot that’s the source of a series of ill-judged attempts at humour. But this objection isn’t even so much about the reduction of human trafficking and the sex industry into a couple of distasteful jokes – it’s about the arguably racist way in which both Mrs Meers and her two co-conspirators are depicted, starting with an accent that would be more at home in Team America, or better still, confined to the history books. This is just one example of a set of sweeping racial stereotypes that are furthered by the pair of Chinese (?) co-conspirators, using Mandarin and Cantonese interchangeably, next to Meers who wears crudely Japanese-inspired geisha-style face paint, the failure to distinguish between east Asian language, culture and misinterpreted tradition smacking of over-generalisation and ignorance.

It should be noted that this isn’t a comment on Steph Parry, the actress playing Mrs Meers in this production; indeed, she does an excellent job of bringing this objectionable character to life in a convincing and compelling way, but the very inclusion of this sub-plot feels misjudged, and to make changes wouldn’t be to pick too hard at the thread of the plot.

Although unquestionably problematic, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the epitome of light, frothy, all singing, all dancing entertainment. With the exception of some uncomfortable squirming whenever Mrs Meers appears onstage, on a superficial level it’s a show you just can’t help but enjoy, featuring an irresistible lead actress at the top of her game.

For tickets and information:
Venue: Landor Theatre
Dates: 26th August – 13th September, with previews from 18th August
Images: Richard Davenport

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.
Okay, fine, but how many stars do you give it? Click here