Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - Frank Oz’s 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine-starring comedy about two men on the con on the French Rivera - was one of the cherished comedy films of my childhood: often watched and quoted. And a few years ago I was also pleased to finally see Bedtime Story, the original 1964 film on which Oz’s remake was based, with David Niven and – of all people! – Marlon Brando in the lead roles. It’s pretty good fun too: at least until its flat, moralising end.
But David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s musical version – which debuted in New York ten years ago and has been in the West End for a few months now – left me completely cold. I don’t think it’s over-familiarity with the source material that’s to blame: rather, it’s the blaring, Broadway-by-numbers treatment that the material’s been given. No-one expects subtlety or soulfulnessness from a musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, of course, but some wit and style (and a few good songs) wouldn’t go amiss. Alas, Yazbeck and Lane’s book and lyrics are wincingly mediocre, and the songs are poorly, clunkingly integrated. This isn’t a show that’s sparked or advanced by its musical numbers: rather, it stops dead for them, and you see the joins. Pretty much everything here feels forced, strained, effortful.
All flash and not an ounce of substance, Jerry Mitchell’s production exacerbates the weaknesses of the material with a superficial glam n gloss slickness that at the same time ends up looking rather cheap. The money’s up there on the stage, all right (in Peter McKintosh’s deluxe slidy sets and twinkly costumes). Yet aspects of the production - the pirouetting chambermaids; John Marquez’s thickly accented Chief of Police - suggest nothing so much as an 'Allo 'Allo! episode directed by a very off-form Bob Fosse.
In the leads, and providing the smuggest double act the West End has seen since Matthew McFadyen and Stephen Mangan graced the (equally God-awful) Jeeves & Wooster, Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound spend as much time playing to the audience as to each other. You don’t feel an evolving dynamic between them and Lindsay – with Prince Charles impression and constant recourse to little hip thrusts – is especially irritating. And Hound’s big comic set piece - the classic “Ruprecht moment” in which the younger con artist poses as the older’s mentally retarded bro - is fumbled by being set against the reactions of a character about as crude as Ruprecht is himself (Lizzy Connolly, in a nightmarish turn as an heiress singing about her Oklahoma home). As the pair’s winsome target, Katherine Kingsley yelps in with a painfully shrill introductory number that’s a true Broadway horror (and does precisely nothing to establish her character), while Samantha Bond wafts through as the rechristened Muriel Eubanks of Surrey (what’s wrong with a little Fanny, one wonders?). Decidedly weak of voice (and not helped by lyrics like “I’ve been royally screwed”) she’s at least a respite from the other performers’ blasting. A charm-free throwback.