That’s not to say that there was nothing to enjoy in those two and a half hours. Michael Agathangalou, as the venal (but sadly not venal enough) small time agent Johnnie Jackson held the whole thing together with some fine, naturalistic acting. Clair-Lise Lecerf’s comic timing as the twittering Lady Rosemary was great fun to watch. There was also some superior choreography, and it was impressive to see how clever lighting changes and thoughtful direction beefed up the limited scenery. As the programme notes argued, there was something to be said for being defiantly low budget – especially if you know how to use what you’ve got.
The songs, as you might expect, stood up to a capella treatment with varying success. Some of the solo numbers were excellent, particularly when drawing on the most talented cast members. Marcus Maurice Smith as rising star Bongo Herbert may not have been the best of actors but he made up for it with his performing talents, and his rendition of ‘Shrine On The Second Floor’ was the standout piece of the show.
A couple of unexpected forays into jerky, funky electronica for two of the songs in the second half worked much better than it had any right to – ‘Bought It’, in particular, was great fun. An arranger isn’t credited in the programme, but whoever they are should be complimented.
But dear God, the length. It wasn’t helped by an oddly placed interval which made for a punishingly extended second half, or the tendency of many of the cast to deliver their lines in a stately, over-careful fashion that made some scenes drag. But the main difficulty was its attempt to cram too much in. In concept it was a frothy confection, trading on cheeky, low-budget charm. A play like that should have been in and out in ninety minutes – any longer and its shortcomings become conspicuous as goodwill drains away. The programme states that a cut version of Expresso Bongo was taken to the Goldoni Theatre in Italy. I wish they had taken it here, too.