Being a musical queen, I do love to drop in on West End shows whenever I have a quiet night and no-one to play with. Last night I tried for returns for the brilliantly reviewed I, Tina and plumped instead for the so-so reviewed Ruthless: The Musical at the Arts Theatre. Shows how wrong critics can be. Why does a newspaper such as The Guardian with its dull, worthy readership even bother to review a show like Ruthless that demands a finely-tuned sense of camp humour that the quinoa-eating, Guardian reading bores would loathe?
I would imagine the reviewers of Ruthless would have taken an equally dim view of The Rocky Horror Show when it premiered at the Royal Court theatre before the old King died. Ruthless is an all-girl production if you allow for Dancing on Ice Mr Natsty Jason Gardiner in the drag role as Sylvia St Croix: five ladies to be precise. The plot spins on child star Tina’s bid to get the lead in the school production of Pippi Longstocking. Ruthlessness is driven into young Tina by super agent Sylvia and her Stepford Wife mother Judy Denmark played by Kim Maresca who originated the role off Broadway.
Though child star Tina is the focus of attention as the child born with magical talent, this is Jason Gardiner’s show. Bearing a striking resemblance to Christina Baranski, the 50s Titian-haired drag was a joy to behold. I couldn’t take my eyes off Mr Gardiner every moment he was on stage. The mannerisms are broad and masculine in the mould of the late, great Joan Crawford. If they ever adapt Mildred Pierce for the stage, Mr Gardiner is your woman.
There are a million in-jokes about film and musicals including riffs on Mama Rose in Gypsy, Auntie Mame and Bob Fosse’s choreography. If you are a musical queen – as were the predominantly gay and female audience clearly were – these are laugh out loud moments. There is zero subtlety in Ruthless making it more like an evening at the Admiral Duncan drag bar than a West End show and it was none the worse for that.
Interesting, isn’t it, that women can be mistresses of camp. I adored Kim Maresca who gets a step change in the second act from Stepford Wife to Broadway star complete with her own Eve Harrington in the4 shape of Lara Denning as her dementedly ambitious maid. The plot is ludicrous – little Tina serving time for strangling her rival in the school play with a skipping rope – and even the child is camp as a row of tents. My favourite line? When she loses the role of Pippi, the little monster spits ‘you’ve got to be f***** kidding me’ which got the biggest laugh of the night.
I was seated front row centre which gave me a ringside view of Jason Gardiner’s excellent stagecraft. He shows a side to his talent that blew me away. If he revived Sylvia St Croix when judging Dancing on Ice he would be a national treasure by now. He gives till it hurts playing Sylvia. Even when the focus is not on Sylvia, Mr Gardiner acts his socks off as if his life depended on the success and talent of nasty little Tina.
One of my favourite West End divas, Tracie Bennett, has a plum of a role as theatre critic Lita Encore who loathes musicals. The score by Marvin Laird gives her a never-ending number that lampoons every musical you care to think of including Cats, Phantom and Les Miserables. Tracie eats the scenery as Lita. Her performance makes Mr Gardiner seem subtle by comparison. She is camp, honey, and the audience loved her.
You can always tell a happy theatre crowd by the interval. Practically the entire audience went outside for a ciggy and a bucket of wine. We were here for a fun night out and boy did the cast deliver. I recall a very mutinous audience when I went to see Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. There was an air of revolution because the national treasure was letting them down in the lead. No such grumblings at Ruthless. You always know the audience is in the moment when they return to their seats early from the interval.
I thoroughly enjoyed both acts of Ruthless and the denouement is reminiscent of the Cluedo film pastiche Clue. Who shot who isn’t even in it. Harriet Thorpe as Miss Myma Thorn gets the least laughs as the school drama teacher but this is the book’s fault not the actress. Miss Thorpe reminded me of a drag superstar called Ruby Venezuela who used to MC at the late, great Madame JoJo’s.
I feel we are all in need of high camp in its highest order right now because the news is pretty dire and the weather in London shockingly shit. I cannot get Jason Gardiner out of my mind. He absolutely tore the stage down as Sylvia St Croix ensuring that I and I would say the lion’s share of the audience will be repeat audience members. I need to see this show again; perhaps on closing night but one hopes this is far, far into the future. Ruthless is booking into June. Bravo, ladies.