As we learned today of the death of the last survivor of the Titanic disaster, it seems appropriate that the Landor theatre is currently staging a show which harks back to that era, based on the true story of one particularly stoic survivor of the sinking, Margaret – aka Molly – Brown.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown earned leading lady Tammy Grimes a Tony Award when the musical opened on Broadway in 1960, and the subsequent film was a hit for Debbie Reynolds in 1964, yet the show has never been produced in the West End. Its UK premiere finally comes courtesy of Clapham’s Landor theatre, which packs a substantial cast into its bijou stage above the pub downstairs.
Abi Finley, one of the contestants in the BBC’s search for a Maria, plays the feisty heroine, a tomboyish girl from the backwaters of Missouri who was nicknamed The Unsinkable after rowing her packed lifeboat to safety in 1912. Yet the Titanic disaster features merely as an aside in this musical which tells the story of her remarkable life up to that point, in which this daughter of Irish immigrants rose from humble beginnings to become a renowned socialite and philanthropist in Denver society.
Meredith Willson’s score – which segues from boisterous country ho-downs to touching ballads – charts Molly’s progress from Leadville, Colarado, where she meets and marries local man JJ Brown (an endearing Sean Pol McGreevy), to their awkward introduction to Denver high society and then European royalty, after a windfall for JJ brings Molly the riches she craved.
Throughout the show we are led to root for our heroine as she comes up against the prejudices of Denver’s snooty bourgeoisie, betters herself in Europe and determines to provide for her father. The story also serves as an all-American fable about the value of staying true to yourself. Molly’s survival of the Titanic disaster seems reward for her recognition that true love is worth more than any amount of money.
A multi-tasking cast act, sing and play the score in this small-scale yet ambitious production that fills every nook and cranny of the Landor’s stage, thanks, in part, to a particularly impressive feathered hat of Molly’s which is as loud and as extrovert as the lady herself.