The week in theatre: Top Girls; The Great British Bake Off Musical; Sleepova; Oklahoma! – review

Top Girls has relocated to Liverpool, and Caryl Churchill, who was consulted about the production and its new context, has recently said that her 1982 classic, based on Thatcher’s Britain, is more an inquiry into society than about feminism. Director Suba Das’s enthusiastic production might have the Toxteth riots as background but it reminds one that the brilliance of Churchill’s play is that it is never doctrinaire, but filled with human oddity, struggle and disappointment. Tala Gouveia power-walks her way convincingly into the role of Marlene, managing director of Top Girls Recruitment Agency, and yet – her 80s shoulder-padded dress notwithstanding – she proves as much a casualty, in her own way, as women with low-flying careers or no careers at all.

In Top Girls, sisterhood scarcely exists – even between sisters. Marlene’s illegitimate daughter, Angie (engaging Saffron Dey), is being raised by Marlene’s working-class sister Joyce (Alicya Eyo powerfully emphasises Joyce’s righteous resentment). Aside from Angie’s spaniel-like devotion to “Auntie”, none of the women likes one another, and that is the real shocker (especially in the Liverpudlian context). Individual ambition contributes nothing to the common good. And this turns out to be the challenge for the production itself because the spirit of “each woman for herself” is, at the moment, leading to a lack of cohesion in the cast.

What do these bakers knead? Rest assured, there are worse – gloriously bad – puns in the show itself

Having said that, the famous opening dinner party scene at which famous women collide in a poncey restaurant (designer Ellie Light) has some great moments. Sky Frances gives a standout performance as Dull Gret (a figure from Brueghel), who exists in a surly world of her own, offering peasant monosyllables as her contribution to the vouvray-fuelled feast. Nadia Anim as 13th-century concubine Lady Nijo is sometimes hard to hear but amusingly toasts herself, reminiscing about her days of sartorial glory – all that raw silk. Lauren Lane plays Pope Joan, and when they (the show takes pride in including trans and non-binary artists) try the following as a conversational opener – “Have you all got dead lovers?” – it lands to high camp perfection.

Understudy Elizabeth Twells (stepping in for Natalie Thomas) does a great job with Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, and the necessity of reading from a script adds an unintended and surreal authority to the scene – you could spot her lines, highlighted in pink, from the stalls. I saw the last preview just before opening night and, at present, the production needs more time to set – more vouvray to oil the works.

The Great British Bake Off Musical, with book by Jake Brunger and music by Pippa Cleary, is fresh out of the oven in a West End incarnation (it had a summer run in Cheltenham last year). I was anticipating a Great British Rip Off, flat as a failed sponge. Inevitably, it does depend on the Channel 4 series (with about 8 million viewers in the UK), but the show manages to have its cake and eat it – an unexpected treat. Exuberantly directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, it simmers with good songs (a poor man’s Cole Porter, if one were being a snob) yet is affectionately satirical.

John Owen-Jones and Haydn Gwynne in The Great British Bake Off Musical
John Owen-Jones and Haydn Gwynne in The Great British Bake Off Musical: ‘a hoot’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Its most satisfying number, Obviously, questions the friendliness contestants show one another (all those suspect hugs). “There’s something underneath the smiling no one will address…” And theatre also provides an opportunity to investigate what television mostly leaves to guesswork. What are the contestants escaping through their baking? (One is hoping to conceive, two are bereaved, a third is a homesick Syrian.) What do these bakers knead? Rest assured, there are worse – gloriously bad – puns in the show itself.

Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood are renamed here. Haydn Gwynne is a hoot as “Pam”, a sprightly, rainbow-clad dynamo with the signature tune Keep on Keeping on. Silver hair is no deterrent to anything (she even puts in a dashing cartwheel) while retaining (part of the job?) her upper-crust voice. John Owen-Jones, meanwhile, nails Paul Hollywood exactly. A top-notch cast is led by super-tuneful Charlotte Wakefield as Gemma, a humble carer from Blackpool (but can she win?).

Sleepova begins with the surprising suggestion that we can stroll out of the show at any time, but, happily, Matilda Feyisayo Ibini, a Nigerian-British writer, teems with enough talent to keep us listening, laughing and firmly in our seats. We meet four black 16-year-old girls in a soft play centre of a bedroom (designer Cara Evans). Shan, at the centre of an ace cast, has sickle cell disease and is sensitively played by Aliyah Odoffin. Rey is extroverted yet vulnerable, gloriously played by Amber Grappy. Bukky Bakray is captivating as Funmi, in pursuit of the boy(s) of her dreams and trying to make sense of her Yoruba heritage. And Shayde Sinclair is terrific as devout Elle, who is beginning to discover her gay sexuality whenever god isn’t blocking the view.

Shayde Sinclair, Bukky Bakray, Aliyah Odoffin and Amber Grappy in Sleepova.
‘An ace cast’: Shayde Sinclair, Bukky Bakray, Aliyah Odoffin and Amber Grappy in Sleepova. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The warm narrative, directed in a suitably laid-back style by Jade Lewis, gets untidier towards the end (too acceleratedly eventful within the time available), but each member of this fab four earns a star to herself.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s epic 1943 musical Oklahoma! tends to rumble along with unrelenting gaiety, the tragic story that is part of the plot taking a comfortable back seat. But New York director Daniel Fish’s Tony-winning vehicle, which is now in the West End after a run at London’s Young Vic last year, is a feat of transformation. Without sacrificing the entertainment of the original, he has excavated a spare American drama, with a shattering finale to rival Lorca’s Blood Wedding.

The hesitant pace of the opening Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ sets the uneasy tone. Wyndham’s theatre has turned into a rifle club/bar with gun displays continuing as far as the theatre’s pine-clad boxes (neat work by designers Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher). And at the heart of the drama is hired hand Jud. Patrick Vaill plays him as a woebegone loner with a steady stare, and conveys his mental disturbance brilliantly. James Patrick Davis’s cowboy Will Parker is in perky contrast, and Georgina Onuorah is enchanting as Ado Annie, the girl who “can’t say no” and says yes to each note in a voice of limitless power, her demure looks hilariously mixed with unbridled ferocity. Lovebirds Curly (Arthur Darvill) and Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) are virtuoso performers and sing People Will Say We’re in Love unsmilingly – a cautious masterstroke.

Opening the second half, choreographer John Heginbotham introduces a brave new dance, performed by mesmerising Anna-Maria de Freitas in a T-shirt dress bearing the glittering text “Dream Baby Dream”. She is careless, wild, yet introverted. For in this production, complicated human feeling is always honoured: dejection, yearning, loneliness – all the dangers of being human.

Star ratings (out of five)
Top Girls
The Great British Bake Off Musical