I like to say that I have a good taste for British humor. I grew up watching British films and reading Jane Austen novels, and I’m accustomed to the dry jokes, subtle slanderings and restrained romantic gestures that make up a large part of the genre. Within the first few scenes of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s “Me and My Girl” this past weekend, I was getting ready to settle myself into an evening of light British comedy. And I did, for a little bit — until it became impossible.
“Me and My Girl” was first performed in 1937 at The Victoria Palace in London. The story follows the noble Hereford family of England who suddenly hear that they are to receive a new heir. Enter Bill Snibson, an unabashed and crude cockney gentleman who startles the prim Hereford family to their core. The remainder of the musical follows this juxtaposition of class, mannerisms and moral ideals between Bill and the Herefords. Bill, however, isn’t complete without his girl, Sally Smith. Together, Bill and Sally make a charismatic duo that defies every aristocratic ideal that the Hereford family holds.
SMTD senior Elliot Styles, who plays Bill Snibson, deserves special mention for his hilarious, fittingly bumbling and memorable performance. Within 10 minutes of being introduced to Bill, we learn that he has no job, lives in an apartment that’s about the size of the Herefords’ fireplace and is accustomed to slapping strangers across the butt whenever he feels the urge. In trying to think of a character that parallels Bill, Amelia Bedelia comes instantly to mind; he takes everything that the Herefords tell him the wrong way. When he walks into a room of the Hereford estate and learns that everything is in his name, he immediately starts to gather all the furniture and walk out the door with it, unable to comprehend that the whole estate is under his ownership. In one memorable scene, Bill turns to shake the hand of his cousin, Gerald Bolingbroke, but finds that both of his hands are occupied with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette. After trying several different formations of juggling the objects in his hands, he finally settles on dropping the cigarette into the whiskey, shaking Bolingbroke’s hand and then attempting to fish out his soaked cigarette afterwards.
Bill’s character is the reason why “Me and My Girl” has made it this far in the musical genre. At times it plays like a sitcom, but Bill keeps the audience on their toes. The key with Bill is that he doesn’t realize where he goes wrong, which is a prime way to critique the sometimes futile mannerisms of the English upper classes. He doesn’t see the problem with vigorously wringing someone’s hand at a party as a form of greeting, and he doesn’t understand that Sally’s reluctance to attend royal parties stems from her fear of not fitting in. Bill’s naïveté is comparable to that of a child, and it makes the audience re-evaluate everything they’ve been fed about the relationship between social classes.
The number right before intermission, titled “The Lambeth Walk,” partially mixes the upper and lower classes into one. The strict Duchess of Dene, played by SMTD junior Emilie Kouatchou, starts dancing along to the cockney Lambeth Walk, and soon all the royal party guests are doing the same. There’s a sense of harmony here, but many events still make it clear that the upper and lower classes are worlds apart. Sally never stops calling her lover Bill, even though the rest of the family refers to him as Sir William. There’s a hint that the two worlds of commoner and aristocracy can never truly merge into one.
After the second act, the humor style changes drastically from refined British humor to slapstick comedy. Suddenly, Bill was wrapping himself from head to toe in his royal robe and making bird-like sounds. Instead of making witty jokes to avoid awkward situations, Bill “melted” away by sinking into his robes and collapsing in a heap. This change in humor took away from everything the first act had created. The production seemed more comical than a critique about class struggle. Nevertheless, the last scenes of the second act tied things together nicely. Bill convinces the Herefords to let him marry Sally, and the Herefords learn to accept Bill instead of trying to mold him into something he could never be.
“Me and My Girl” is more comical than anything, which makes it hard for the underlying themes to shine at times. The choice of a British comedy musical certainly attracted a homogenous crowd, which was disappointing in a town as diverse as Ann Arbor. However, the performances of the cast and their ability to reel in what could have been a very cluttered production was admirable. The sense of not fitting in makes “Me and My Girl” accessible for a wide variety of audiences, and defying class divisions using comedy makes the production vaguely refreshing.