As part of the celebrations for Johnny Mercer's centenary, the BBC Concert Orchestra mounted two semi-staged performances of his final stage musical, The Good Companions, at the Watford Colosseum. Conductor John Wilson – who led the phenomenally popular MGM Prom this August, as well as a fantastic concert performance of My Fair Lady in Gateshead in July – came together with an experienced cast that included Liz Robertson, Ian Talbot and Annalene Beechey to perform the show, which was first staged in London in 1974. The results could not have been more entertaining.
The Good Companions is based on JB Priestley's most popular novel – indeed the work that solidified his reputation. It tells the tale of an upper-middle class woman, Elizabeth Trant, who – quite against the advice of her relatives – decides to use her new-found wealth to fund a group of strolling players whose director has run off with all the money. Escape is a strong theme of the show: Trant finds her true self in the theatre, while the enterprise also helps the working-class Yorskshireman, Jess Oakroyd, to get out of his mundane existence and instead work as a handyman for the troupe. The similarly unhappy Inigo Jollifant, who is a teacher at a rundown private school, becomes the music hall group's pianist and emerges as a hit songwriter. One can see why the 'backstage musical' flavour of the novel must have appealed to Previn and Mercer.
The libretto for the West End show was adapted by Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Pianist (his other films include Being Julia, The Browning Version, Oliver Twist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he was also Oscar-nominated). Andre Previn, the former Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, was an experienced Hollywood composer and conductor: he wrote the music for the Gene Kelly film It's Always Fair Weather and conducted the films Gigi and My Fair Lady. Mercer, meanwhile, received nineteen Academy Award nominations and was the lyricist of scores of American standards: 'Something's Got to Give', 'Dream', 'Moon River', 'The Days of Wine and Roses', 'Charade', 'My Shining Hour', 'One for my Baby', and 'Come Rain or Come Shine'.
So one couldn't have hoped for a better team, and The Good Companions is indeed a witty and engaging piece. Apparently, Previn was so busy with his day job at the LSO that he had to record the music onto tapes and send them to Mercer in America, who then wrote the lyrics. The songs show no sign of this geographical distance, however, and are surprisingly memorable. Some of them are broad depictions of Yorkshire heartiness, such as 'All Mucked Up' and 'The Pools', but there is also an unexpected sophistication in the piece. Previn links the three leading characters (Jess, Miss Trant and Inigo) by having them each sing different lyrics to the same music ('The Great North Road', 'Footloose' and 'On My Way'), showing that in spite of their disparate backgrounds, they're each in search of a new life. The chromaticism and angularity of this waltz is a cut above the average, and typical of the score as a whole.
Miss Trant's two solo numbers – 'The Dance of Life' and 'Darkest Before Dawn' – are admirably poignant, while 'Stage Struck' (sung by the young girl, Susie Dean) is a real showstopper. Jerry's flashy 'Slippin' Around the Corner' (which we've previously witnessed Inigo composing) has an air of 'All I Need is the Girl' from Gypsy, and the ensemble numbers like 'May I Have the Pleasure?', 'A Little Travelling Music' and 'Good Companions' are all suitably rousing.
In short, the piece is an underrated little gem (the original cast album starring Judi Dench, John Mills and Marti Webb was briefly available but is now a rarity), and in Wilson's taut performance all the nuances came through. It seems the project has been a labour of love for him: the original full orchestral score was lost after being simplified for amateur productions, and although some of the original performing parts were eventually discovered by Caroline Underwood of the Warner/Chappell music publishers, Wilson has had to restore parts of the score for which no material survived. He has rendered the work of Angela Morley and Herbert W. Spencer, the orchestrators of the original production, extremely sympathetically, and led the performance with verve.
It's hard to know who deserves the most praise out of the cast, because they were very well chosen, both vocally and as actors. Stepping into the shoes of John Mills, Ian Talbot inhabited the role of Jess Oakroyd with charm and sympathy, and he maintained his Yorkshire accent throughout the delivery of his songs. The superb Liz Robertson was the perfect foil for him as Miss Trant: her crystalline diction and poise were mixed with an affecting vulnerability to show the many sides of the character. Mark Meadows also shone as Inigo Jollifant. To play the teacher-turned-composer is no mean feat since Jollifant has to play the piano while singing at several points, but for the multitalented Meadows – former member and musical director of The Swingle Singers – there seemed to be no problem.
Two of the younger cast members also stood out. Annalene Beechey was excellent as Susie Dean, the soubrette role originally filled by Marti Webb. Her enchanting persona and strong vocal performance were apparent throughout the evening but most especially in the brilliant 'Stage Struck'. Perhaps even more of a revelation was Stuart Matthew Price as Jerry Jerningham: his song-and-dance routine to 'Slippin' Around the Corner' was a real showstopper.
With the Maida Vale Singers covering a range of smaller roles and raising the roof in the ensemble numbers, and the BBC Concert Orchestra playing at their exquisite best, this was a superb evening. One hopes the same team will explore more classic musicals in the future, but in the meantime the Radio 3 broadcast on 16 November at 7pm is not to be missed.