The Pleasure Garden review – bittersweet musical romance amid the roses

It is 1850s south London and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is in its last decade of offering spectacular public entertainment, including concerts and circus acts. More adventurous types head for the secluded rose-strewn arbor in search of “the freedom to be themselves”.

Among the thrill-seekers is Ralph (Jay Worley), a top-hatted clerk making goo-goo eyes at the winsome gardener, Tom (Sam Baumal), who has also attracted the attention of the lecherous Lord Roger (Rory-Charlie Campbell). Lady Maude (the supremely witty Ashleigh Harvey) is tiring of her husband’s appetites: “Oh Roger, give up sodomy,” she sighs, shortly before he launches into Can a Man Help Being a Sod?

This bittersweet musical written by Glenn Chandler (the creator of Taggart) with a jaunty score by Charles Miller, has a site-specific frisson: the theatre is adjacent to the old Pleasure Gardens, while a present-day prologue alludes to apartment blocks owned by Russian oligarchs.

The tone is gently comic. So gentle in fact that it sometimes falls shy of outright laughs. When Tom sings of being The Loveliest Blossom on the Bough, one longs for a passerby to remark on the lad’s inflated sense of self. In a likable cast, Worley is vividly sympathetic as Ralph, though his romance with Tom needs an extra scene or two to give the courtship more muscle, as well as a jolt of passion to justify the high-stakes drama that follows.

There is no lack of colour, aunque, in numbers such as What’s Wrong with a Little Détente?, or in animated projections that transport the characters into the skies over London for a hot-air balloon ride and even to the battlefields of the Crimean war.

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