JOYCE MCMILLAN on DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 19.9.15.
2 stars **
THE SETS are gorgeous, the dancing is slick, and the 20-strong cast work their socks off to make it go with a swing. For all that, though, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – first seen in New York in 2004, and now at the Playhouse in this British touring production – is the musical that taste forgot; and not in a good or an interesting way.
The problem arises, I think, from the desire of everyone involved – songwriter David Yazbek, scriptwriter Jeffrey Lane, and a galaxy of producers – to make this show combine two different types of appeal. Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the show often looks, and even occasionally sounds, like a gorgeous Cole-Porter-style musical of the 1930’s or 40’s. There’s the French Riviera setting, the elegant hotels and train carriages, the occasional fine set-piece song-and-dance number with a rattle of tap shoes; and the outlines of the story sit easily against this background, since it’s all about a suave English con-man making his way along a Mediterranean coast full of lonely, rich widows, accompanied by his French policeman side-kick, Andre, and a shambling but ingenious young American trickster called Freddy.
The words the characters are called upon to speak and sing, though, are something else. Essentially, they’ve been given the crudest kind of update to our own unlovely times, when the f-word flies freely around the stage, the second act consists of an increasingly tasteless extended joke about Freddy trying to seduce an heiress by pretending to be a war hero in a wheelchair, and the delightful Gary Wilmot, as Andre, and the charming Geraldine Fitzgerald, as a wealthy widow, are not allowed simply to strike up an elderly romance, but have to exchange morning-after pleasantries while describing their antics of the night before in the joyless, impoverished and just plain ugly language of a cheap soft-porn novel.
The obvious clash between the language and the look of the show certainly raises the odd laugh; and it’s impossible to fault the cast’s commitment to delivering the show in style, with Michael Praed in fine form as the suave hero, and Carley Stenson gorgeous and talented as the presumed heiress. Yet in the end, despite one brief burst of melancholy romance instantly undermined, all this forgettable show has to say is that people are nasty pieces of work; and that it’s therefore not only right but amusing to give them lyrics and language that match the ugliness of their minds.
Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 26 September.