Kind Hearts and Coronets was the best film produced during the golden age of Ealing Studios, a seven year period which resulted in a handful of dark comedy classics, including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. In Kind Hearts, Dennis Price plays the love child of a disinherited member of an aristocratic family. When his mother dies and is denied internment in the family vault, he takes revenge on the snobs by killing each person who stands between himself and a dukedom, eight men and women all played by Alec Guinness. It is all so deliciously British, the perfect movie for a gloomy Sunday afternoon, and it provides the narrative skeleton for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which has Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) dispatching eight D’Ysquiths (Jefferson Mays) to get the Earldom of Highhurst. Unfortunately, this musical takes only its plot from Kind Hearts and none of the latter’s wit or charm.
Admittedly, Mr. Pinkham is quite good as Monty, and his take on the part is wholly different than Price’s. Instead of playing him as an evil master mind, as you might imagine Vincent Price doing it, Mr. Pinkham’s Monty is really just a regular, nice fellow, the kind you could want as a good friend; all this business of poisoning and drowning is really the fault of poor circumstances and despite being something of a mass murderer, he always comes out as the most sympathetic member of the cast.
However, to say that Mr. Mays falls short of living up to Alec Guinness would be unnecessary and a little cruel, since the two are so far apart in talent that it would be like comparing William Shakespeare with John Grisham. His is an athletically impressive performance (the costume changes alone would topple a less gymnastic actor), but he has an off-putting, almost creepy smugness about him, and one gets the impression that he is the type of person who laughs loudest at his own jokes. True, this isn’t entirely Mr. Mays’ fault, since the writing is consistently obvious and unfunny, not to mention occasionally uncomfortable. For example, when one D’Ysquith sings, “We’ll civilize a village in the jungle, / It can’t take long to learn their mother tongue, / Of words they have but six, And five of them are clicks, / And all of them are different words for dung!” I, at least, got the sense that this was a racist joke hiding behind the guise of Edwardian satire; that is, the punchline is the African and not the imperialist. Furthermore, a closeted D’Ysquith (who is responsible for the song “Better with a Man”) is only really funny if you find homosexuality a cause for discomfort.
Once again I find myself feeling like an old grump out to ruin everybody else’s fun. Clearly my fellow audience members had a blast and just a glance at other reviews reveals that most critics shared their experience and not mine. Perhaps I will be vindicated in time.