Putting on a production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in this day and age is pretty ballsy. The Fifties musical is set in 1850, thus naturally adhering to what now seem anachronistic ideals. And what is more, the completely barmy plot only serves to bolster its eye-wateringly chauvinist, nay virtually misogynistic bent. Yet Rachel Kavanaugh’s take, in embracing the absurdity of both its message and plot, turns that all on its head. Her show at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a right rollicking blast, with a wonderfully wry sense of humour and slick production in every aspect. As a result – and rather surprisingly – Seven Brides seems more apt for modern audiences than ever.
Kavanagh places the spotlight firmly on Milly, a plucky young woman living in deepest Oregon. With no living kin and a job as a waitress, she spends her days keeping the loutish men of the town at bay and declining proposals from all the boring other ones. So when a rugged stranger walks in and proposes to her after two minutes, she takes her chance and agrees to go and live in blissful seclusion up in the mountains with him. It’s only when her new husband, the woodsman Adam, gets her up there that she learns of his six brothers, all living in the same little chalet; unlike most fairytales, her gamble does not seem to have paid off. Nonetheless, she makes it her mission to turn these uncivilized, thoroughly uncouth men into charming suitors. And she does such a good job that the six young girls in the town are utterly smitten when they meet the brothers, regardless of the other young village men to whom they’ve been promised. So the men get into scraps, one thing leads to another, and the brothers kidnap the girls and take them up to their hideaway just in time for the winter to set in, generating an avalanche as they go so that the townsfolk have no means of retrieving their females.
That’s rather a theme – the young women being seen and talked of as property by any and all of the men (fathers, brothers, suitors alike). You wonder if the village lads really care about them, or whether their prides are simply wounded at the prospect of such theft. And this view of women is no more apparent than between Milly and Adam. With sparky and lustful chemistry between the excellent Laura Pitt-Pulford and Alex Gaumond, the audience is gunning for their characters’ relationship to work from the off. Regardless of how fantastical their speedy union, their passion is palpable and there is a wonderfully tidy ‘love at first sight’ form of predictability that makes you feel like this marriage must work, based on the standard rules of fairytales. But Adam’s deception makes it worryingly possible that he simply wanted a woman to cook for and clean up after him – and his clan – rather than to share the romantic idyll that he sold to Milly when they met and so hastily wed. When Milly manages to make men of his galumphing brothers, he scoffs at them for making an effort to impress women. And despite all of Milly’s work and his brothers’ reverential regard for her, he will not consult her as an equal, running off in a huff to live on his own for the entire duration of her pregnancy because of a disagreement where she did not bow to his will.
Though Adam could come off as a monster, one instead feels quite sorry for him. He seems to be at crisis point, lacking direction and any nous to find his path. His dependence on Milly (whether he realises it or not) is endearing and turns her into the story’s idol. In so doing, it glorifies women through its portrayal of a negative attitude towards them, and that is the beauty of Kavanaugh’seffort here. Furthermore, instead of trying to make anything gritty or ‘real,’ she Disneyfies the whole thing up – the smiles are plastered on, the dancing is overly joyous, the men spar as though in cartoons, the girls squawk and squeal and the costumes, oh the costumes, are full of sickeningly sweet pastels. In contrast to the women, the brothers are so primitive they are practically Neanderthals. These grunting beings undergo comically glistening transformations into polite, nimble gentlemen (the actors hinting at the rushed timeframe of this with little glints in their eyes). Yet despite their gentrification, when they are pining for their girls, their song of agony sees them gripping cushions over their groins both for childish comfort and to cover their ‘longing’ up. It is this sort of wit – to the detriment of the men – that balances out the opinions being thrust at modern audiences well trained not to stand for such unequal values between the sexes.
As always at Regent’s Park, the entire auditorium is put to use, and it is great fun to have singing and dancing up in the audience’s stalls. The neat set is wheeled easily from one stance to the next and the avalanche scene is executed with drama and flair. No, it’s not like being in the real thing (that would be horrible) – it is much more entertaining. There is plenty of dancing, which is riotous and joyful, and the sense of fun being had on stage is dangerously infectious – they’ll have you clapping along like a moron. And a very happy one at that.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 29th August 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.