THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF MUSICAL – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – what a sweet treat

Haydn Gwynne and company, photograph by Manuel Harlan


Book and lyrics by Jake Brunger

Music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Noël Coward Theatre, London – until 13 May 2023

This does exactly what it says on the cake tin. A joyful confection and, like the universally adored TV show that inspired it, a bona fide crowdpleaser. If it’s a little rough around the edges as a musical (and anybody who caught last years brief tryout in Cheltenham may be surprised at how little has changed), it’s still a thoroughly lovely way to spend a couple of hours in the theatre.

Creators Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary have already proved, with their razor-sharp Adrian Mole musical at Leicester, the Menier and in the West End a couple of years back, that they have an unusual ability to apply Broadway-style chutzpah and confidence to a uniquely British story and themes. Their tuneful score for The Great British Bake Off Musical has a commendable swagger and ambition: there are patter songs, power ballads, raps, rousing chorales and upbeat numbers that bring the house down. If Six’s Marlow and Moss’s work so far seems aimed more at the pop market, Brunger and Cleary’s is innately theatrical.

I assume it’s deliberate that the style, musical structure and chord sequences of blockbusters such as Hamilton and Wicked sometimes hang heavily and incongruously over this score, but the weaving-in of Tom Howe’s TV music is ingeniously done. Brunger and Cleary’s incisive, witty lyrics ensure that this show has it’s own unique, tart flavour. It’s unashamedly sentimental at times, but also pretty hard to resist.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s attractive staging, seasoned with simple but entrancing choreography by Georgina Lamb, finds that sweet spot where it simultaneously sends up the TV show that inspired it, while also paying an affectionate homage. The physical production is basic but colourful – sets, costumes and cakes (!) designed by Alice Power, lighting by Ben Cracknell, admirably clear sound by Ben Harrison – but with a cast this good that’s pretty much all that’s needed.

Structurally it’s nearer to a revue than a traditional musical, perhaps inevitably given that it has to encompass an octet of contestants, a pair of presenters (Scott Paige and Zoe Birkett, both fabulous) plus two judges (John Owen Jones gleefully capturing serving up essence of Paul Hollywood, now joined by a hilariously haughty Haydn Gwynne as Prue Leith stand-in, Dame Pam Lee, who gets a glittery full production number to open the second half), and, for a show based upon a TV series rather than a single story, I’m not sure one can ask for much more than that. Not every gag lands (a ponderous opening number that sees Birkett and Paige got up as cave people discovering the origins of cake is a real headscratcher and a couple of running jokes feel belaboured), and the tonal shifts between hilarity and heartbreak could be slicker and subtler. There are perhaps rather too many songs, though most of them are smashing.

There is a sliver of plot involving Damian Humbley’s sweet widower and Charlotte Wakefield’s self-effacing full-time carer from Blackpool, the conclusion of which one can see coming a mile off, but it’s sold with so much charm, as well as sensational vocals, by these two fine performers that it is impossible not to care. Humbley in particular, already very good last year, has now developed his study in selfless grief into a finely wrought portrayal.

The entire cast is terrific. Cat Sandison delicately convinces as an Italian baker who has substituted cake making for the children she can’t have, Aharon Rayner is impressive and multi-layered as streetwise but lovable Hassan, unsure of how much of hIs Syrian heritage he can bring to the TV screen. Jay Saighal nails the swagger and fragile masculinity of a toe-curling hipster and Grace Mouat is a lot of fun as a ragingly ambitious spoilt princess. Michael Cahill sparkles as camply stylish but sensitive Russell.

Claire Moore, one of the most astonishing musical talents of her generation, initially seems a tad underused as sassy, thrice-married Eastender Babs but then gets an explosive act two number, pitched half way between Music Hall and Broadway showstopper, that finally justifies such luxury casting. It’s a rollicking, full-throated ode to unrequited love, and Moore’s barnstorming rendition of it – hilarious, deeply touching and vocally enthralling – is the stuff theatregoers memories are made of. It may be extraneous to the plot, such as it is, but it’s worth the ticket price all by itself. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that it’s such a great number, and put over with such star power, that it slightly takes the shine off what I think is supposed to be the real eleven o’clock number, the soaring and melodic Wicked-esque power ballad ‘Rise’. Wakefield performs it thrillingly but it just feels too soon after Ms Moore has all but ripped the roof off the theatre.

Despite some minor quibbles, this is the theatrical equivalent of the finest baked goods: fresh yet comfortingly familiar, warm, a bit messy but a feast of fun. It’s life-affirming big heartedness, unashamedly British revelry in puns and double entrendres, and sugary familiarity may just be the nourishment we all need right now. I smell a big fat hit.


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