Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Summer 1963. Schoolgirl sisters Jennifer and Marie set off on their first guardian-free holiday, eager for sun, sea, sand . . . and eye candy. As with so many teenage dreams, the 16-year-olds’ idealised vision is quickly spoiled by the not-so-sunny climes of Lowestoft, where the only touch of the exotic is the visiting US soldiers’ mispronunciation of its name.
All is not lost. One of these dashing military men, the African-American Curtis, takes an instant shine to Marie and the two embark on a whirlwind romance, set to the perpetually sunny tunes of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
When you hear Save The Last Dance For Me is written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, famed for Dreamboats and Petticoats and Goodnight Sweetheart, you know what to expect. Endearing quaintness nudges up against familiar yet amusing one-liners, with caricatures like the faux-Spanish ice-cream man from Birmingham (Alan Howell laying the Brummie on thick), and stick-in-the-mud parents in denial about their daughters’ burgeoning sex drive.
Gentle angst hangs in the air, the plot eagerly dangling the prospect of our leading couple being torn apart by – oh! – the holiday’s end and – no! – Curtis’s deployment abroad. Lyrically ambivalent, Pomus and Shuman’s hits from Teenager in Love to Lonely Avenue bring swaggering sophistication to proceedings, nicely punctuating the setups and punch lines.
The staging is minimal: aside from a seaside bench and the dreary side of a pastel-shade caravan, the main set is a bar with a lively jukebox taking knowing pride of place, literally winking at the audience in neon splendour. In the centre rises a stage on which cast members croon and play their own instruments, and this is the heart of the show. It recreates the ambience of band-and-booze nights so well, the audience encouraged to sing along from the get-go, that you may regret you’re not watching from a pub’s smoky seats.
Your thoughts on this will determine your feelings about the show as a whole. Is it lazy to build a musical around a glorified cabaret band, the plot so thin you could thread it through a needle? Or is it this very crowd-pleasing unfussiness that adds up to two hours of unashamed fun? Undoubtedly the time flies by, aided by punchy tunes relevant to the story; leads Elizabeth Carter and Kieran McGinn sing with feeling, while Lee Honey-Jones near steals the show with a train station rendition of Tell Her.
So the gestures towards 60s racial tensions aren’t always successful, and if you’ve any doubts where the tale’s heading, it’s likely you’ve just been beamed down from Andromeda, but that’s part of the point: the nostalgic embrace of sweet-natured rock ‘n’ roll matches the love story’s simplicity.
Twee but winningly charming, this is a jukebox you’d happily listen to all night, which, as Viva Forever’s producers discovered, is the key to making such shows successful. Save The Last Dance For Me delivers exactly what it promises – no more, no less – and you can’t say fairer than that.