This review was written for the Londonist
How many people walk about wielding an A-Z these days? Pre Google maps it was normal for even hardened Londoners to have one about their person when they ventured into unknown parts of town. Do you even know where your battered, once-essential street guide is any more? Find it and you’ll probably discover you harbour a surprising amount of feeling for its well-thumbed pages – it will take you back to your earliest days in the capital – which is why a musical about the humble A-Z might prove popular. That and the fact Isy Suttie from Peep Show is the show’s star, her first ever venture into musical theatre.
The A-Z of Mrs P is a “fable” based on the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman responsible for the first ever A-Z street map of London. Intensely sweet – occasionally sickly saccharine – it shows how Mrs P transformed herself from whimsical painter to master map maker. There is only so much you can say about the A-Z in this context and the musical focuses increasingly intently on Mrs P’s family, especially her relationship with her overbearing father. It’s this that adds a welcome dash of darkness and pathos, and makes the musical a less glossy but much more engaging production.
In the spirit of Mrs P’s endless lists, here’s my (slightly dubious) A-Z of The A-Z of Mrs P:
Art – the play gently explores the clash between artistic tendencies and hard nosed business
“Best foot forward” – one of Mrs P’s relentlessly cheery mottoes
Ceiling – the theatre is strung with an explosion of suitcases, street signs, miniature houses, furniture and postcards
Drawing – being a good draughtsman, we learn, is one of the keys to good map making
Elastic – as Mrs P, Isy Suttie’s expressive face often speaks a thousand words
Family – ostensibly about maps, the musical is more of a family portrait
Geography – who knew a musical could be made about it?
Hungarian – Michael Matus plays Mrs P’s demanding father, an ambitious but adulterous immigrant who drives Mrs P and her mother to distraction
Indexing – another key to good map making
Jumps in time – we zip back in time to the understand more about the family’s past, then rush forward through a world war, a crippling plane crash and into old age
King – context and insight is offered by cabbies, bus drivers and hawkers. We learn of the king’s abdication, and Mrs P’s loneliness, from a newspaperman
Lovely London Town – Mrs P’s greatest love is the city and The A-Z… pays due homage
Maps – obviously
Nostalgia – there’s oodles of it here
“On we go!” – another stoic Mrs P motto
Mrs P – she’s an enigmatic character, her more recent past glimpsed only in tantalising snatches, including a period sleeping rough in Paris and a husband she leaves with apparently little consequence, no mean feat in the 1930s
Quickstep – Mrs P literally walks the whole of London in order to plot out her first map
RP – Mrs P is deliciously well spoken in a 1930s Chelsea sort of way
Southwark Playhouse – the musical is on here until 29 March
Telegrams. Stop. Lots of them. Stop. Used cleverly to allow transatlantic conversations.
Upset – the second half is darker and more dramatic, as Mrs P’s mother is driven mad and her bullish father shows his true colours
Venice – we first meet Mrs P as she steals away from Venice, leaving behind a life we learn nothing about
Women – the frustrations of being female in the 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond are keenly felt
eXtraordinary memory – Isy Suttie sings long, tongue twisting lists of street names with aplomb
Yellow trousers – Mrs P’s wardrobe of wide trousers, brogues and head scarves is a vintage loving Londoner’s dream
Zeal – Mrs P exudes it, and all the actors approach the story with a charming gusto that is hard to resist.