The Great British Bake Off The Musical and there are no soggy bottoms in the house | Theatre | Entertainment
John Owen-Jones and contestants in The Great British Bake Off Musical
A bit-part actress who ends up marrying the President of Argentina. A group of Mafia mobsters played by children armed with splurge guns. A psychopathic barber who slits his customers’ throats. At first glance, none of them sounds like suitable source material. And yet Evita, Bugsy Malone and Sweeney Todd went on to become among the most successful stage musicals of all time.
So, it’s a brave man who dismisses the idea of The Great British Bake Off Musical on the eve of its West End opening. Featuring an original score, it’s written by multi-award-winning duo Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics).
It was May 2020, theatres were closed because of Covid and producer Mark Goucher approached Jake and Pippa, following their success with the musical version of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, to ask if they could come up with a brief treatment and a couple of test songs for a show based on Bake Off.
Jake, 36, recalls: “I was a big fan of the TV show as was Pippa. That camaraderie of a group of strangers bonding in a tent struck us as a perfect setting for a musical. So we just carried on in that vein until, after two more years, we eventually had a finished show.”
Following a successful two-week try-out in Cheltenham last summer, including some rave reviews, it is now transferring to London’s West End for a 12-week season.
At no point did Jake or Pippa consult either Prue Leith (Pam Lee on stage) or Paul Hollywood (Phil Hollinghurst in the show.)
Stars of the Bake Off musical John Owen-Jones, main, as Bake Off judge Phil Hollinghurst
“But Prue came to see the show in Cheltenham, bringing along all the members of her team from her publicist to her gardener. She was very complimentary.”
Says Prue: “It’s an uplifting, funny, heartfelt story, which will have you singing and dancing out of the theatre with a huge smile.
“A theatrical sweet treat. Just what we need right now.”
Paul Hollywood has yet to give his opinion, denied the chance to catch the show in Cheltenham when he was laid low with Covid. Jake isn’t worried.
“Obviously, Phil is based on Paul but, as with Prue, the actors playing them aren’t doing an impersonation; they’re very much fictionalised, comic versions of the real people,” says Jake.
The show is constructed as if it were an unaired series of Bake Off on TV but compressed into a couple of hours or so on stage.
The challenge, of course, was to find a way of continuing to include all ten bakers in the storyline even after they’ve individually been eliminated from the contest.
“We’ve come up with some clever tricks,” says Jake, “to keep it as an ensemble show throughout.”
Unusually, and unlike Elton and Bernie Taupin, for instance, Jake and Pippa write the music and lyrics together at the same time.
“I perch my laptop on the end of her piano and we basically keep going until we make each other laugh or sing a tune that we both like.”
Often, though, it’s the song title that comes first. One of their favourites grew out of a conversation about the relationship between Pam and Phil.
“We were brainstorming and Pippa suddenly said something like: ‘I’d never be me without you.’ I told her to stop right there. I Googled those words and, to our astonishment, we found that no one had ever written a song with that title.”
The score is a lot more heartfelt than you might imagine, he says.
Paul and Prue – the TV version
“I think the expectation is of a silly pop musical. But there’s real emotion there which I don’t find surprising. I cry at almost every episode when I’m watching Bake Off on TV.”
There is also the added layer of suspense.
“It has elements of an Agatha Christie story except, rather than being a whodunit set in an isolated country house, it’s a whowonit set in an isolated tent in the country.
“Having said that, it’s not like X Factor where everyone wants to stay in the competition to win a recording contract. In Bake Off, no one wants to be sent home for the simple reason they’re having such a lovely time.”
They won’t be the only ones. Precisely because he’s known for big, serious, dramatic roles – Valjean in Les Mis, the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical – John Owen-Jones, 51, was attracted to the Bake Off musical.
The TV version of Bake Off
“I’m quite a happy-go-lucky, gregarious kind of a guy so I thought it would be lovely to tap into that for once,” he tells me. “And I’m delighted to say it’s proved to be one of the best experiences of my professional life. To illustrate how invested people become in the show, one of the characters in the musical – not the actor who plays him – has already got his own Twitter fan page.
“And, when various contestants are voted off, you can hear an audible sigh from the audience.”
He’s yet to meet Paul Hollywood face to face.
“We follow each other on Instagram – we’ve had a few little chats – and I do have blue eyes like him. But I’ve dyed my hair silvery white for the part.
“I’m not trying to be him, though, more summoning up the essence of the man. What I’ve done is put all the ingredients into a bowl and made my own Paul Hollywood-shaped cake. The cherry on that cake is the audience reaction.”
So, has Paul given him any tips?
Haydn Gwynne is known for playing Alex Pates in Drop the Dead Donkey
“I’m not saying but I do bake bread and my wife, Teresa, does make cakes.” Has he started dishing out Hollywood handshakes? “To all and sundry.”
Actress Haydn Gwynne, 66, above, is a relatively new recruit to the production, joining the cast as Pam Lee for the London transfer. “What attracted me apart from anything else was that the show is directed by Rachel Kavanaugh who I knew years ago at the RSC.”
It’s not a drama-documentary, she says, but she will nonetheless be very recognisable as Prue Leith. “I’m reading her memoir at the moment and here is a woman you could never describe as a shrinking violet – from the highly coloured clothes and spectacles and jewellery. Costume will provide 98¾ percent of my character.”
She’d never worked with John Owen-Jones. “But what a voice! I’m completely relying on him to cover up any dodgy notes I hit.” She’s being self-deprecating, having sung her heart out as ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson in the stage show of Billy Elliot and having appeared in The Threepenny Opera.
“Yes but this is an ensemble piece. It’s warm and embracing and fun – and that’s as true for the cast as I hope it will be for the audience. I’m looking forward to it enormously.”
Scott Paige, 32, was midway through a UK tour of The Addams Family – he played Uncle Fester – when he was invited to audition for the role of presenter Jim (opposite Zoe Birkett as Kim) in the Bake Off musical.
“I jumped at it straightaway. I’m such a huge fan of the TV show. It was a no-brainer.”
So, will he be playing a Matt Lucas manque? “I’m a big guy – although he’s lost weight now – with a bald head. So yes, if you squint, you’ll get a hint of him. I’m going to invite Matt to come and see the show in London.
“I like to think of it as a love letter to him. But then, I like to think of the musical as a love letter to the TV show.”
A seasoned West End performer, Claire Moore, 63, starred, among much else, as Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Ellen in Miss Saigon.
“Bake Off seemed an unlikely idea for a musical until I read the script – and then I said yes immediately.” She loved the two-week run in Cheltenham and can’t wait for the West End transfer.
So, how does she explain its appeal? “Well, I think, like the TV show, you invest in the characters. I play someone called Babs and I’m a typical East End Nana who bakes for her grandchildren in her flat.
“I’ve got a great number towards the end of the show which reveals a plot twist I obviously can’t share. Suffice to say I’m wearing a terrible cagoule so what could possibly go wrong?
“It’s a bit like that Susan Boyle moment when everyone took the mickey out of her until she opened her lungs.”
Claire and her daughter, Anna, are big fans of the TV show. “We watch it together every series. I hope audiences will feel the same about the stage version.
“It’s not political or ground-breaking, just unapologetic escapism. And don’t we all need a bit of that right now?”
- The Great British Bake Off Musical opens on February 25 at the Noel Coward theatre. Visit bakeoffthemusical.com for more information