Like most, my favourite sort of theatre is cartographical musical theatre. A musical about mapmaking is both unexpected and unpromising, so it comes as a very welcome surprise when a new British musical, on a very odd subject, makes it to the stage and turns out to be really very good.
The A-Z of Mrs P is a biography of Phyllis Pearsall who traipsed through every single street in London to create the first London A to Z. Writer Diane Samuels, whose moving play Kindertransport has just begun a nationwide tour, teamed up with composer Gwyneth Herbert to tell the story of a woman whose life was by no means easy, yet who managed to achieve such a behemoth of a task.
Isy Suttie, probably most familiar as Dobby from Peep Show, plays Mrs P with a wide and infectious grin, and a kind, optimistic take on life that only falters during one confrontation with her difficult father Sandor (Michael Matus). Suttie hits the sustained notes very well but is a little fuzzy on the other bits. Matus maintains a powerful presence and a powerful voice in a part that veers from merely rogueish at points to utterly contemptible at others. Phyllis’ often drunk and increasingly insane mother is played by Frances Ruffelle, a big name in musical theatre (she originated the role of Eponine in Les Misérables). She spends much of her time onstage in only her lingerie, and she can certainly sing.
A canopy of odds and ends – road signs, light bulbs, newspapers, postcards – hangs over the long stage and the audience sits in traverse on either side. A small group of musicians sits in a treehouse-like platform at the end, playing beautifully with Steve Ridley directing. The music itself is charming: there are tunes that will stick in the head and, despite a couple of underwhelming rhymes, the lyrics add to the characterisation of Mrs P and her family extremely well – Mrs P sings of ‘Lovely London Town’, while her father, after being particularly brutish, tries to persuade the audience that he is not a brute.
There’s more than a little Sondheim shining through – from lyrically dense and difficult songs (including one that tries to fit in the name of every London street in quick succession) to an emphasis on music as a score rather than a succession of take home songs. Samuels and Herbert have pulled off something whimsical that is not light, catchy but not trite, and a deep, fascinating look at a remarkable woman.
For more information about The A-Z of Mrs P and to book visit here.