Genre: Comedy musical
The irreplaceable, irrepressible ghost of Robin Williams could have haunted this stage production of Mrs Doubtfire. How could anyone reproduce the insane brilliance of an iconic performance in a beloved film that holds a special place in the hearts of so many children and their parents?
The answer is not to try to imitate it, not to invite comparisons and not to rile the fans of the movie by changing the essence of the story, while still producing a fresh take on it to attract a new audience.
It was a tall order but it’s winningly met by this entertaining, funny and, yes, moving stage version.
Oh, and they added songs! And they work!
The Broadway critics, who resisted the charm of the production, because “a man in a dress is no longer funny” perhaps missed the point of why this man ends up in a dress. Mrs Doubtfire is, at its heart, a family drama. It’s about the agonising decisions adults make to end marriages that no longer work and the devastating emotional consequences of those decisions on the children of the marriages.
When Daniel and Miranda, drift apart, not least, because of their different parenting styles, the effect on their three children is immense.
“Are we still a family?” asks one plaintively as the parents angrily negotiate the division of time each can now spend with their offspring. Daniel (an excellent Gabriel Vick) a voiceover actor is heartbroken that his ex wife wants to limit the time he can spend with the children after their divorce. Instead, she advertises for a nanny to care for them when she is not available.
A desperate Daniel comes up with the harebrained idea of applying for the post. Using his vocal mimicry skills he calls his ex wife, offering an array of nannies to put the fear of God in any child. So, when the warm, reassuring Scottish tones of an older woman ring out over the telephone, Miranda (Laura Tebbutt) is enchanted.
With the help of his gay brother, a makeup artist and the brother’s partner (both of whom contribute greatly to the comedy element of the show), a look is also created of a kindly looking older woman in a frumpy wig, latex mask, comfortable cardigan, tartan skirt and sensible shoes. Thus, is Mrs Doubtfire born.
Like a cuddlier Mary Poppins, Mrs Doubtfire gets the job and proceeds, with her unconventional nannying methods, to turn the lives of Miranda and the children upside down, mostly for the better, as slapstick, mayhem and some surprisingly tender moments ensue.
The West End is currently awash with stage productions of mega successful movies from the 80s and 90s. You can’t turn a corner without encountering a Pretty Woman or some Dirty Dancing and it can seem like a relentless cash grab exploiting nostalgia for simpler entertainment times when writers didn’t have to watch every word for fear of igniting a social media storm. But Mrs Doubtfire never feels like a soulless money maker. It is a genuinely charming, likeable show that works even if you’ve never seen the film.
The characters are rather broadly drawn but the jokes and storyline have been updated; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are gently mocked, there are voice impressions of King Charles and Boris Johnson and the gay couple have an adoption side story. Despite the added British elements, the central story remains resolutely American and the core of it explores themes anyone can recognise, dealing as it does with issues of fear of change, loss, identity, what makes a family and seeing someone beneath the sometimes annoying surface.
The songs may not be classic musical level but they are enjoyable and move the story along nicely unlike some in many modern musicals which can seem unnecessary and just an opportunity for a character to have a big solo moment.
The climax of the film is a restaurant scene in which Daniel has to make lightning swift changes from himself to Mrs Doubtfire. How would this be handled in a live theatre show? The answer is – very impressively. It’s a fabulously chaotic scene with Vick earning every penny of his salary in making the split second transitions against the background of a genuinely hilarious flamenco song and dance number.
Cast your doubts aside. Set fire to them even and go see the Mrs, dearies.