Perhaps only a country that’s generally as good at theater as Britain would spend so much time reveling in the awfulness of the stage. Welcome, in other words, to “Acorn Antiques — The Musical,” the new Victoria Wood tuner that wants to reduce auds to helpless laughter with early jokes about performing “Waiting for Godot” in supermarket parking lots and (stale) riffs on “Blood Brothers” and “Mamma Mia!” later on. In stitches yet? Probably not, though the biggest joke may well be that so amateurish a celebration of amateurism has cracked a new West End ticket top of £65 ($120-plus).
Why the pricy ducat? Because “Acorn Antiques” is a full-length — at helmer Trevor Nunn’s usual three-hour running time, make that inordinately long — stage musical version of creator Wood’s popular TV sketches of the same name (12 in all) from the early 1980s. That those BBC skits were appealing three-minute japes — in essence, they did to British soap operas what America’s “Carol Burnett Show” did to “Gone With the Wind” — has gone ignored in the makeover.
While some kernel remains in the second act of the jittery sets and clunky perfs that gave the small-screen “Antiques” a limited charm, the stage musical is a wearisomely overextended conceit stretched to breaking point and well beyond.
Show will doubtless do well on the strength of the title and a rare West End sighting of Julie Walters, who has signed on for 16 weeks. But new recruits to Wood’s comedy may find themselves stumbling woebegone out of the Haymarket, wondering principally what four months of adopting such dreadful posture six shows a week (Wood herself headlines the other two) is likely to do to Walters’ spine.
Is there a masseur in the house? Actually, a show doctor wouldn’t hurt — indeed, anyone who might have seen that the entire first act could be dispensed with. As Wood’s book laboriously has it, the title “Acorn Antiques” has been hijacked by a pretentious director (Neil Morrissey), who wants to lure unsuspecting auds into “a show that will explode mealy-mouthed middle-class hypocrisy.”
Even better: “If people knew what this show was really about, they wouldn’t come.” You’re telling me.
Nunn was running the National when Jeremy Sams so successfully revived Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” which remains the last word in theatrical anarchy of an exquisitely calibrated sort. “Acorn Antiques” instead offers up rudeness as if it were comic gold dust (“Where’s the nice plain girl with the big bottom?” barks Walters, swathed in fearsome white as the resident diva). Admittedly, it does allow the odd sight of producer Phil McIntyre and Nunn spoofing compilation musicals and “Les Miz,” respectively — the very entertainments that got them where they are today.
But “heroine/heroin” one-liners aren’t much funnier than some confusion between the words “carp” and “crap.” By the time Walters’ Bo Beaumont has won £2 million in the national lottery, enabling her to dump her irksome director and get on with “Acorn Antiques” itself, you enter intermission both dazed and relieved — that last word being especially apposite for a piece which, true to expectation, thrives on the unexpected human emissions that always send Brits into convulsions.
Act two is by itself longer than several other West End shows and shares with “A Life in the Theater” a joy in theatrical ineptitude that isn’t always the best advertisement for the cherished art form, at least among those spectators who may not share that innate affection.
And so we finally do land in the deliberately tottering, fragile world of “Acorn Antiques,” except the emporium of the title now risks extinction thanks to the cruel, money-grubbing hands of Josie Lawrence’s Mrs. Terry. She, it seems, wants the premises to open yet another coffee shop, which in turn cues a few jokes at the expense of Starbucks that are barely less rancid than day-old coffee.
What does song-and-dance have to do with any of this? Not a lot, unless your appetite for self-reflexive musicals remains so unsatisfied at this late date that you are desperate for yet another pastiche version of “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity,” as if the supremacy of (the infinitely superior) “Forbidden Broadway” has been all but forgotten. “It’s not about anything; it’s a musical,” someone says of “A Chorus Line,” which, given the point of origin of the putdown, is more than a little rich.
The opening-night audience sat either stone-faced or enraptured, and there’s likely to be correspondingly little middle ground in one’s response to a musical that makes one wonder whether Nunn will soon direct a West End revival of “No Sex Please, We’re British.” (Given lines like “I’ll handle this; I have a scrotum,” “Acorn Antiques” will surely do for now.) A staunchly buxom Celia Imrie, repeating her TV role as the snooty Miss Babs, gets an honest laugh, while Sally Ann Triplett — playing the role of Miss Berta that Wood herself acted on TV — is scarcely recognizable from her star turn in Nunn’s popular staging of “Anything Goes.”
For the most part, one finds a guide to proceedings in the gifted Walters’ eerie, even eventually grotesque grimace as the stooped, hairnet-wearing Mrs. Overall. Sure, the woman can tap, and her singing voice is surprisingly strong, but to what end? For all the show’s end-of-pier emphasis on the nether regions (sample exchange: “How wide is your soil pipe?” “How dare you!”) and words like “groin-grinding,” other hyphenates come to mind like, say, mind-numbing.