Noel Coward Theatre (venue)
06 March 2023 (released)
07 March 2023
In trying to create a musical based on The Great British Bake Off, writing partners Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary may have bitten off more than they can chew. The iconic TV show is, like cakes and tarts that are concocted every week, a sweet treat best enjoyed with your nearest and dearest so persuading its many fans to swap their sofas for a seat in a theatre will take some doing.
The plot follows eight bakers going through the usual malarkey: every week, they convene in a tent and are asked to make a signature bake, complete a technical challenge and then create a dazzling “showstopper” of a cake based on a theme. The judges are present and correct here in all but name: Paul Hollywood and Prue are represented by a blue-eyed ego-on-legs called Phil Hollingsworth (John Owen-Jones) and the booze-loving Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne) while Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige play the excitable presenters Kim and Jim respectively.
Brunger and Cleary correctly put their finger on the appeal of Bake Off TV show. For sure, the media attention is all on the celebrities and the eventual winner but, for devotees of the show around the world, it’s always been less to do with the actual cooking - unless it goes dramatically wrong - and more to do with the personalities in the tent and who gets the boot at the end of each episode.
Each of the musical’s contestants are richly characterised – the vegan North London eco-hipster (Jay Saighal), the camply dressed gay engineer (Michael Cahill), the retired East End dinnerlady with a lusty eye for Paul, sorry, Phil, the Syrian teenager from Wembley who loves his lucky T-shirt and urban beats (Ahron Rayner), the uber-competitive Oxbridge graduate (Grace Mouat) and the Italian dolce specialist (Cat Sandison) – but the central romance revolves around single dad Ben (Damian Humbley) and Gemma from Blackpool (Charlotte Wakefield).
The individual acting is consistently superb across the cast and, even if the chemistry between Ben and Gemma is better written than shown, the creators deserve plaudits for the wide range of adult issues on display here. Moving songs about the pain of not being able to have a family, having a dead wife or mother and unabashed middle-aged female lust are not what one would expect from an upbeat musical but Brunger and Cleary certainly know how to jerk buckets of tears from their audience. The kitchen choreography from Georgina Lamb is spot-on, keeping us engaged whenever one or other contestant grabs the spotlight.
If anything, this sturdy confection of a production is a little too rich and, should it aspire to being a winning showstopper, might want to take a cherry or two off the top. Watching Gwynne (now in her mid-60s) perform a cartwheel during her solo number or seeing Paul, sorry, Phil slap his strudel in public are amusing but they don’t push forward the narrative and contribute to the bloated running time of around two-and-a-half hours. By the time lovelorn Gemma launches into her second solo, the “numb bum” syndrome sets in and we remember why Bake Off is best enjoyed on sofas and not West End theatre seats.
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan