'The A-Z of Mrs P' review or 'Have you lost your way?'

'The A-Z of Mrs P', Book by Diane Samuels 
Southwark Playhouse, 25 February 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo 

23, 000 streets. All of them labeled with house numbers. The London A-Z Street Map, which Phyllis Pearsall created in 1936, was undoubtedly an epic achievement. But it is not good fodder for a musical. This is a show in which one scene begins with the line: ‘Right, where are your index cards?’ Worryingly, that’s one of the dramatic high points.
There’s masses of talent involved in this production, with Tony and Olivier awards galore. But not even Leonard Bernstein himself could save this mediocre musical. It simply isn’t very interesting. Diane Samuels tries to pep up the script by exploring the troubled relationship between Phyllis’ parents but their anguished scenes feel out of place in an otherwise hum drum affair.  
Isy Suttie plays the pioneering Phyllis Pearsall, who gave up everything (including a bland husband and promising painting career) to create the infamous A-Z street map. Suttie is charm personified and when she smiles, the audience beams with her. Her singing is pleasant and her performance full of pep. But she is not a musical super-star and certainly isn’t the right actress (is anyone?) to bolster this shaky production.
Klara Zieglerova’s design is clever but cluttered. A huge array of props hang from the ceiling: maps, postcards, suitcases and anything vaguely related to travel. This massive mobile is meant to free up the modest traverse stage but actually makes it feel smaller. The actors look crowded and the action feels cramped.
Director Sam Buntrock, who has a strong track record with shows such as ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, over does things. It feels like he’s desperately trying to pump up the production. When Phyllis reads out one of countless telegrams, her father helps recite the piece, the ensemble sings a trembling underscore and a four-piece band blasts away from the balcony. It’s all one can do not to shout out, ‘It’s just a bleeding telegram!’
Much of the action involves Phyliss traipsing around London, citing street names. Gwyneth Herbert’s score reflects the monotony of the task and is predominantly rigorous, staccato and flat. It is a score that feels conversational rather than inspirational.
Frances Ruffelle plays Phyllis’ disturbed mother, Bella Gross, with an abandoned desperation. With ripped clothes and a bruised body, she looks like she’s been dragged off the set of Les Miserables. The role of Phyllis’ overbearing father, map-maker Sandor Gross, is one-note and Michael Matus spends most of the show screaming at the top of his lungs.
Phyllis Pearsall was an impressive woman but this is wearing musical. By the end, one longs for London to be smaller and the map – finally – to be finished.