There is usually a good reason why some plays don’t get staged or revived and this play deserves to be put in a box, sealed and locked away in some dungeon, never to see daylight again. London last saw this play in 1989 and I am sure that London theatre fans haven’t missed this one bit in the last 22 years.
Based on a book by Joseph Stein with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz, it has a simple (some may even say a simplistic) plot. A small minded village loses its baker and bemoans the lack of bread. A new baker arrives with his much younger wife; we sense her unhappiness at a previous love affair gone wrong; she runs off with a local stud; her baker husband hits the brandy and stops baking; the villagers are outraged at having to go without bread and set out to reconcile the two; and in the end, she returns to her husband. There we have it.
24 hours after seeing this play, neither I nor my partner could remember what made the baker’s wife return to her husband but this typifies the lack of depth and character development in this musical. We see the baker’s wife shunning the advances of the village stud and then, like an automatic light switch, she falls into his arms and elopes with him. And the constant bemoaning of the lack of bread is irritating enough to put me off baguettes for a while.
In fairness, there are two interconnected themes that offer some interest. Firstly, the married women in the village are unhappily married to men who shout and insult them publicly. In contrast, the baker is ever so gentle and loves (and ultimately forgives) his wife, but not enough is made of this stark contrast to allow our thoughts to linger on this for a while. Secondly, while many of the village women are aghast when they hear of the elopement, they remember their own girlhood dreams of romantic lovers and the possibilities for a happy life but the play doesn’t probe deep beyond this.
Full credit, then, to the cast of 18 who work hard and give us a gusto performance within an intimate space. We can’t fault their singing or their acting. Ricky Butt, who plays the cafe owner’s unappreciated but unbowed wife, stands out the most for me. The live cello and piano accompaniment is brilliant. It is a shame that the play isn’t good enough and if it weren’t for the enthusiastic cast, we would have walked out at the interval.
The Baker’s Wife runs until 15 October but all remaining performances are sold out.