She Loves Me is happily back in London at Christmas time for the first time in over 20 years – Matthew White’s production of this charming musical plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 4 March. Written in 1963 by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick – the original production starred a young Barbara Cook – it is set in a parfumerie in 1930s Budapest. Two young clerks who are far from friends at work are both separately writing love letters to a secret admirer, a ‘dear friend’ whom they have never met, little realising that they are writing to one another. The story has been the basis for the films The Shop Around The Corner and You’ve Got Mail. The show was revived at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester for a limited season 5 years ago and in New York this year, but has not been seen in London since the multi Olivier Award winning production at the Savoy Theatre in 1994 starring Ruthie Henshall and John Gordon Sinclair. This production at the Menier will hopefully introduce the charm of the show to a whole new audience.

She Loves Me is a chocolate box of a musical, full of delicious delights. Known as a favourite amongst musical theatre lovers, the score is packed full of great character songs that push the action forward throughout, giving each of the 7 leading characters their moment in the story. Les Dennis’ Mr Maraczek – owner of the parfumerie – is like a firm toffee. Maraczek is a reliable and dependable man who demands the same from his staff – but despite his occasionally gruff exterior, Maraczek is a sentimental man who reminisces about ‘Days Gone By’. The company’s delivery boy Arpad – played by young Welsh 17 year old Callum Howells, in a career-launching role – strives to be like a pleasing praline as he pleads to Maraczek to ‘Try Me’. Older clerk Sipos is fudge-like in his determination to avoid giving an opinion, as revealed in his ‘Perspective’, Alistair Brookshaw giving the character layers of pathos and empathy. Real-life couple Dominic Tighe and Katherine Kingsley play two other clerks who enjoy a less-happy romance than the leading pair. Tighe’s lothario Kodaly is like a slippery, runny caramel ensnaring the Turkish delight of Kingsley’s Ilona. When he lets her down for the final time, she takes a ‘Trip to the Library’ to find true love in one of the show’s wittiest numbers.

But at the centre of the chocolate box that is She Loves Me are a pair of delicious soft centres whose romance drives the whole show. Mark Umbers’ as Georg strikes the right balance between the outward efficiency of the character and the inner insecurity – and it’s Umbers who gets to sing the show’s delightful title number (not to be confused with the Beatles hit ‘She Loves You’ which dates to the same year). Georg is the ‘orange cream’ to the ‘strawberry dream’ of Scarlett Strallen’s Amalia. Soprano Strallen returns to the London stage – having spent the last few years living and working in America – to play her third major Barbara Cook role in one of her finest performances yet. Strallen has the best moments of a top-notch score with ‘Will he like me’, ‘Dear friend’ and the show’s most famous number, ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ and is a sensual delight as a girl who is determined to find true love with the man from her letters.

There’s something quite moving about She Loves Me in knowing that such a story could never happen in these days of modern messaging. Matthew White’s exquisite production uses British rather than American accents in a nod to the underlying class of the characters, while Rebecca Howell’s choreography constantly delights, especially in the clerks’ farewell routine to customers as they leave the shop, ‘Thank you madam, please call again’. Paul Farnsworth’s revolving set is visually stunning, particularly the coloured bottles of Maraczek’s parfumerie. A year after writing She Loves Me, Bock and Harnick scored their greatest hit with Fiddler on the Roof, but the charm of this chamber musical is unsurpassable. Now aged 92, lyricist Harnick travelled to London to the opening night at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and declared that it could be the best production of She Loves Me that he’s ever seen. That’s praise indeed. And with literally ‘Twelve days to Christmas’ as She Loves Me’s final number goes, who could possibly resist its charm?