The basic plot of this musical is not one you might immediately consider yourself to be interested in. It focuses on the London A-Z, and the life of the woman who was behind its creation, Phyllis Pearsall, or ‘Mrs P’. It starts by her leaving her husband in Italy and running away to London to start a new life, at which point she receives a telegram from her Hungarian father, asking her to pioneer his new idea for a guide to London.
I sat front row, read all the actors’ bios and the whole programme through twice, and was fully prepared to be enlightened by the thrills and wonder behind the London A-Z. But after all this, the basic plot of this play remains equally as uninteresting to me as when I first considered it.
If the play were about one woman’s endeavour to create something new in the world and to take it as far as she could, that would be appealing. Unfortunately, the whole story is commandeered by the money grabbing, lecherous father figure, Sandor, who takes control of, uses and insults all the central women characters from start to finish, without a trace of any kind of character development. Sandor regularly jumps from beating his wife and calling her a ‘cheap and tacky whore’, to singing about ‘The Softness of Women’, during which he graphically gropes two of the female extras, taking them off the chairs where they had been acting as office workers and laying them on the floor to seduce.
The character in itself is not a problem – this story is based on Pearsall’s real life, and perhaps this is what her father was like. However, the aim and focus of the play veered off onto the story of the abusive relationship between mother and father and the adulterous and downright creepy actions of Sandor. This awkward transition is unsurprising when considering the creation of the play. The creative team had intended an upbeat homage to Mrs P and her work, until they encountered what they term in the programme ‘the great surprise’ of ‘the emotionally complex family story.’ While watching the play, this unexpected addition seems very much out of place. The scenes quite quickly split into two types: the bubbly and likeable scenes of Mrs P motivating herself to keep going, and the morbid, eerie scenes of family trauma, which seemingly have no place within the wider frame of the play. The play is ultimately an uncomfortable hybrid of what could have been two quite successful plays, but something went wrong along the way.
However, to leave it at this might be unjust to the actors. This was the musical debut for the star of the show, Isy Suttie (best known as ‘Dobby’ in Peep Show). Her acting was really impressive – she was charming and hilarious, yet uncertain, scared and teary when she needed to be. It would be incredible to see her in a show that had a script to match her talent. The rest of the actors were by no means untalented, but visibly struggled to uphold any chemistry with one another through the awkward scripting and staging.
This play had the potential to make the story behind the London A-Z interesting and heart-warming, and while it definitely achieved something, it seems the concept just got lost somewhere along the way.
The A-Z of Mrs P is booking until 29th March at Southwark Playhouse