If you’re looking for camp, London’s Noel Coward theatre is serving it up. A few minutes into this musical spin-off of The Great British Bake Off and Haydn Gwynne, channelling Prue Leith in big bright spectacles, waltzes up the kitchen aisles to ask baking competitors “if you lick, ooze or squirt?”
Camp has always been integral to Bake Off’s success. From lady fingers to soggy bottoms, the cooking contest is a fine measure of exactly how much innuendo two national treasure presenters can shoehorn into an English garden party, while staying just about genteel.
So the franchise is well suited to musical theatre, all teeth, tits and tempered chocolate. If your idea of a great night out is watching a top-tier Paul Hollywood impersonator (John Owen-Jones, uncanny) suggestively slap a strudel into shape, you’re in for a treat. But over the course of this two hours and thirty minutes, one sometimes longs for something more.
There’s a basic story as we watch a single series of the baking show play out, though not much feels at stake. Each time our fictional contestants unveil their bakes – and face the judges – their personalities are outshone by Alice Power’s scrumptious cake designs.
Love Productions, the commercial force behind Bake Off, have turned to witty composing duo Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary for this latest attempt to monetise their brand. In this musical’s best moments, I was reminded of the world-weary camp of Jet Set Go!, the Edinburgh Fringe musical about cabin crew which put them on the map in 2008 with a transfer to London’s Jermyn Street Theatre. Fifteen years later, Cleary has become our first female composer to have two musicals on simultaneously in the West End, with the joyous My Son’s A Queer on up the road at the Ambassadors.
But I wonder if writing to a franchise commission has blunted the duo’s sardonic edge. There’s plenty of singing about how baking brings us together; less about Bake Off’s nastier moments. You’d even forget the tumultuous week when Love Productions absconded from the BBC to Channel 4, if not for the briefest of asides. “Mel and Sue? Who are they?”, shrugs a presenter.
Gwynne and Owen-Jones are a delight as barely-disguised versions of Leith and Hollywood, as are Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige as more generic TV presenters. In our predictable central love story, Damian Humbley and Charlotte Wakefield are endearing enough as all-too-obviously sympathetic models of the ideal Bake Off contestants. (He’s a widowed single father, she’s a carer from Blackpool.) We meet eight contestants, each with a backstory and a big number: I found myself moved by Cat Sandison’s performance of “Grow”, a song about fertility which Cleary wrote while undergoing egg-freezing.
Yet there’s little to surprise and towards the end, loose ends are tied up in a rush. Brunger and Cleary even seem to duck out of showing us key storytelling moments: complex plot developments curiously happen off-stage.
There’s plenty of sugar-dust here, but all but the most die-hard fans will need richer sustenance.