Composer John Kander (1927-) and lyricist Fred Ebb (1928 – 2004) were the highly successful song-writing team which produced Cabaret (1966), Chicago (1975), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) plus the theme song for Martin Scorsese’s film New York, New York.
But their first collaboration, which set the scene for these later triumphs was Flora the Red Menace (1965). It’s a story of the depression era, set in New York. The title role of Flora was premiered by a 19-year old Liza Minelli.
Unlike its more succesful successors, Flora has not had a glorious history on stage: its premiere run failed to make it to 100 performances. It hasn’t been seen in a professional performance in the UK since a production at the Orange Tree in Richmond in the mid-1990s. Fortunately, it is currently enjoying a revival at the Rose and Crown in Hoe Street Walthamstow. The theatre is easily walkable from Walthamstow Central Station on the Victoria Line, and the front-of-house staff treat the audience without any sign of West End surliness.
Flora has some great songs. It is well-cast, the central role superbly taken by Katy Baker. The band is just a piano – Aaron Clingham and a bass – Adam Storey, and yet there is not a single moment when the musical interest flags. The dance numbers are imaginatively, vividly choreographed (by Kate McPhee) and the whle thing is blocked and designed and thought through with great variety. The nine-actor cast move through song and dance numbers with professional energy and confidence – they even rise to a Busby Berkeley spectacular (with Blue Peter-ish carboard creations(!) as the first half closer from heaven.
Director Randy Smartnick permits himself to ask a necessary question in the programme : “What is wrong with Flora that it isn’t staged very often?” He answers that the answer is that it has been taken too seriously, and needs to be “light-hearted and fluffy enough to make fun of itself.” He has certainly achieved that. I wonder, though: I suspect that the subject matter – thirties depression, unemployment, the rise of the communist party, the reassuring platitudes we get from polticians (is this beginning to sound familiar/ topical? it should) – may be just too uncomfortable not to clash with the purpose of entertainment.
But once the house lights are down, the moment can be thoroughly enjoyed. This is a great show. It’s unfair to single out cast members in such a seamlessly collective effort, but Canadian Ellen Verenieks as Flora’s archly determined rival-in-love nails her role with total conviction, daemonic humour. She makes the hopeless dilemmas of the hapless, doubly pursued Harry (Sam Linscott) 100% plausible and understandable.
Don’t be put off by the rather tentative, raw promotional video – above. This show has transformed itself during its run,and completely. It’s now lively, it’s professional. The ensemble has gelled and interacts and communicates to perfection. The audience’s attention is completely held throughout. Critics tend to see shows before the wrinkles are ironed out. The recommendation now has to be unequivocal: don’t miss Flora before the run ends on June 1st.