Just before it moves to a new, temporary location, I finally fitted in a visit to the ‘Vault’ space of the Southwark Playhouse to see Thom Southerland’s production of the musical comedy Victor Victoria. The Playhouse is located just a stone’s throw from the entrance to London Bridge station – indeed, the Vault is actually in a tunnel, and you can hear the occasional sound of a train moving past nearby. One of the cast (Ashley Knight) is playing the piano at the beginning as the audience enters the small rectangular space, rather like going into a dimly lit nightclub. Our ‘pianist’ chats to various audience members, asking where they are from, and plays tunes connected to various countries, and a lady appears (Jean Perkins) greeting the audience and doing tricks with the help of those sitting down the front. This all adds to the atmosphere of a slightly edgy and entirely convincing show that made for an original evening of live theatre.

Set in Paris in 1934,Victor Victoria is the story of a poverty-stricken soprano (Victoria, Anna Francolini), who meets and becomes friends with fellow performer Toddy (Richard Dempsey), a gay man. When Victoria is mistaken for his new beau, Toddy persuades her to work as a female-impersonator act. During her opening performance, Victoria is watched by straight club-owner and gangster King Marchand (Matthew Cutts), along with his dumb-blonde girlfriend Norma (Kate Nelson) and bodyguard ‘Squash’ Bernstein (Michael Cotton). King Marchand is smitten with her, and incredulous when she is ‘revealed’ as a male at the end of her act. Rightly convinced that she is female, King Marchand pursues Victoria and they get together – but is this straight man ready for the prejudice of being conceived to be in a ‘gay’ relationship?

Staged in an atmospheric, intimate setting, Victor Victoria actually says quite a lot about human life, love and prejudice. It turns on its head the typical effeminate image of a gay man (sometimes apparent in Dempsey’s Toddy), when ‘Squash’ Bernstein, thinking that his boss is gay, reveals that he is too. And it keeps a strong narrative thread going throughout, so that the audience really care about the central characters and their inner dramas. In many ways this is an intimate story – there is a risk that Victor Victoria would get lost as a show in a large staging, but here it shines, reminding one a little of another ‘large’ musical effectively staged small, Grand Hotel at the Donmar. Here, as in that theatre, actors enter via various entrances and doorways, and scenery is brought in and taken off again at rapid quick speed.

Like many great musicals, Victor Victoria’s musical numbers (by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse) are best heard within the context of the show, often evolving naturally out of dialogue or situation. ‘Le Jazz Hot!’ is probably its best known number, staged colourfully here with ‘Victor’ and the ensemble, but this is not given the West End showstopper treatment, avoiding shrill notes and remaining part of the story. Strong actors are required to make Victor Victoria work and this production has been well cast. Anna Francolini brings a real sense of irony and resignation to the role of Victoria. A failed soprano down on her luck, she comes across the colourful and more adventurous Toddy and is coerced into becoming a ‘female-impersonator’, finds that she is good at it, but isn’t ready for the problems that ensue. Francolini nails all her numbers, particularly impressive on ‘Crazy World’, and on her eleven o’clock number ‘Living in the shadows’. Richard Dempsey’s Toddy is quite glorious and fully realised too, always ready with a quip and a ready answer, but he also succeeds in showing the inner man. Matthew Cutts excels as King Marchand in conveying the determination that Victor is really a woman, while examining his inner-self and the possibility that he could be in love with a man. Michael Cotton’s Squash has the ‘coming out’ story which is handled well and conveyed realistically, with Squash gaining confidence in himself when seeing his gangster boss dating a ‘man’. As gangster’s moll Norma, Kate Nelson revels in her second-act opener, and in the disbelief of King’s possible sexual preference.

This is a real ensemble effort – the supporting cast play a multitude of roles between them, the aforementioned Jean Perkins in particular doing some quick changes from playing a waitress to a sultry madame. Thom Southerland ensures that the whole space is used in the Vault too, and that actors face different directions at different times. The seating is in rows at either side of the long narrow main stage, with additional seating in ‘booths’ – presumably for some special Parisian guests! The only downside to the evening is the uncomfortable general seating, packed closely together – do take a cushion or sit on a coat if you go to see the show before its run ends in mid-December. Having not seem the film version of Victor Victoria, starring Julie Andrews – her husband Blake Edwards wrote the musical’s book too – I’m now going to check it out – but this production would be hard to beat.