How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ★★

Frank Loesser’s classic satire of big business, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is revived at Southwark Playhouse

The Frank Loesser revival in London continues apace. While the Guys and Dolls is enjoying a glorious revival at The Bridge Theatre, Loesser’s other much-lauded-but-less-revived musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying makes a return to Southwark Playhouse. As one of only nine musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an obvious question hangs in the air why has it been so rarely revived in the UK?

The 1961 musical is set in the sphere of “big business” and focuses on one J. Pierrepont Finch’s attempts to climb the corporate ladder, from lowly window washer to company executive in the World Wide Wicket Company, armed only with his trusty business self-improvement manual, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, his wits and a ruthless ambition. The musical aimed to satirise the world of American office politics by placing greed, ambition, backstabbing and sexism under the microscope. Think Mad Men with hummable tunes.

All images by Pamela Raith

Director Georgie Rankcom‘s production opts for gender fluidity in their casting. Gabrielle Friedman (she/they pronouns) and Tracie Bennett (she/her) take on the traditionally male roles of Finch and President of the company J.B. Biggley. Given one of the targets of the musical is the rigid gender segregation between men as soi-disant corporate masters of the universe and women as secretaries and potential wife fodder, this casting blunts the satire. Rather than presenting How To Succeed as a period piece with outdated values and leaving the audience to extrapolate the six-decade difference between then and now, it grafts on contemporary values and robs the show of its raison d’être.

Traditionally the (pre-recorded) Voice of ‘The Book’ has been played by a news broadcaster. Walter Cronkite and Anderson Cooper made sense as the articulation of this corporate self-advancement bible. Here, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Michelle Visage in a bland, underwhelming voiceover, conveys none of the requisite authoritative gravitas of a didactic instruction manual. 

Finch is a remarkably clean slate of a role, allowing the actor to imbue their character with a motivation of their choosing. Matthew Broderick in the 1995 Broadway revival played Finch as an ambitious wolf in sheep’s clothing while 2011’s second Broadway revival saw Daniel Radcliffe interpret the part as a something of a clod falling upwards. While Gabrielle Friedman has a clear-as-a-bell voice, her Finch remains a frustratingly blank page. Less dastard and more dullard. By the time she sings his second-act hymn of narcissistic self-regard I Believe In You, it only underlines how passive her portrayal is. It’s a performance so understated, it renders the show’s protagonist picayune. 

Not unlike their previous show at Southwark Playhouse, Anyone Can Whistle, Rankcom as a director seems happy for each cast member to pitch their performances at whatever level they like. Inevitably this adds to the tonal confusion. Bennett hits just about the right balance of caricature as the gruff Biggley. She finds funny where there’s none but the role is inescapably one-note. She extracts the most that is humanly possible but it still feels a waste of her talent. Annie Aitken as Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s secret mistress, is given the challenge of transforming the sexy, airhead secretary stereotype into something that makes any sense. Because the production has pulled away from the original gender politics of the piece, it is a part that has little chance of succeeding no matter how much trying. To be fair, against the odds, Aitken manages to smuggle likeability and warmth past the inherent datedness of the role.

While South London does have somewhat a reputation for crime, the Met should send a squad to Southwark Playhouse immediately as there is a dangerously bad outbreak of mugging. One of the worst perpetrators is Elliot Gooch as Biggley’s lazy, nepo-nephew. Again, despite a gorgeous vocal talent, Gooch leaves no punchline unpummeled and no gurn ungurned. There are moments when he gets some big laughs but in other moments, the desire to make every line a zinger becomes tiresome. But he is not alone in this. An early number Coffee Break has the ensemble displaying an ugly freneticism in their search for laughs. 

Thankfully Allie Daniel as ambitious young secretary Rosemary Pilkington is on hand to deliver a brilliantly nuanced comedic performance. She understands when she has to lean into the sexism that is being satirised and when to undercut it with outbursts of what we imagine are Rosemary’s inner thoughts. It’s such a generous, thoughtful star turn, you cannot help fall in love with her character too. Although you do think she can do so much better that piece of meh she longs for. 

While the show’s central character should have a clear-eyed vision of who he is and what his ambitions are, this production continues its lack of a cogent identity into other areas. Sophia Pardon‘s set has a backdrop of Mondrian-esque squares that transform into drawers, filing cabinets and a lift door. Coupled with the occasional desk and chairs, this sparse set opts not to anchor the piece to any particular period. The neon ladder that dominates the set has a certain symbolic irony for this production in that it reaches high but clearly leads nowhere. 

Musically Loesser and Burrows offer up a range of listenable-but-not-killer tunes. Brotherhood of Man is a highlight but the score holds none of the same toe-tapping appeal as Guys and Dolls. Presumably the Loesser estate prevents any staging from cutting numbers, but if you think the title How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is long, wait until you see the running time! 

Perhaps the reason that How To Succeed is so rarely revived is because is inherently too dated to be saved. This production offers no evidence to the contrary no matter how hard it tries. 

Not the success we’d hoped for – ★★ (two stars)

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Tickets

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs at Southwark Playhouse until 17 June 

Book Tickets