On your marks, get set… sing! How The Great British Bake Off became a West End musical

John Owen-Jones as Phil Hollinghurst with contestants in ‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’  (Handout)
John Owen-Jones as Phil Hollinghurst with contestants in ‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’ (Handout)

Paul and Prue, is that you? No, in fact, it’s Phil Hollinghurst and Pam Lee, the new stars of The Great British Bake Off Musical. After 13 years, many soggy bottoms and a few Baked Alaska-related dramas, the nation’s favourite baking show has been given the all-singing, all-dancing treatment. Opening in the West End next week, it’s the biggest new British musical of the year and plans to capture that Bake Off spirit, from the underdog stories we root for to the tragedy of a tricky technical.

But Bake Off? A musical? Seriously? The show’s cast is already accustomed to raised eyebrows. “My reaction was, as I think a lot of people’s was, ‘How’s that gonna work?’ actor Haydn Gwynne, who plays judge Pam, tells me from rehearsals, furrowing her brow. John Owen-Jones, playing Phil, felt the same. “I’m like, ‘Really? A Bake Off musical?’”. The show had an early run in Cheltenham last year, and co-writer Pippa Cleary sensed a similar audience scepticism. “I think they were expecting, ‘Oh, I’ll just come in and have a bit of a drunken night out with the girls’ and that’s really not what we wanted to do,” she tells me.

Instead, Cleary and her co-writer Jake Brunger, the team behind the 2015 hit The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ musical, wanted to use “comedy and heart in equal measure” to capture the tone of the baking show we all know and love. The cast come from all ages and backgrounds and have become friends backstage, just as the real-life bakers do, and there are all the references to “soggy bottoms” and obligatory innuendos we’ve come to expect (Singing about, erm, “slapping” bread dough, our Paul Hollywood stand-in tells the bakers to “Pound it down upon that bench/ Work it ‘til your biceps clench”). “You can poke fun at something while loving it,” director Rachel Kavanaugh insists.

On paper, The Great British Bake Off Musical sounds like an unofficial parody, the kind of thing you’d see in a room above a pub at the Edinburgh Fringe. But this show is about as official as it gets, created in collaboration with Love Productions, the company who have worked on the show since its creation in 2010 and through its controversial move to Channel 4 in 2016. It’s the latest TV show to make the jump from screen to stage, with a new Stranger Things play announced this week, while Peaky Blinders has been made into both a ballet and an immersive show. The concept of a Bake Off musical had been in the works for years, but it took writing duo Cleary and Brunger to kick things into gear. “We really, really fought for it because we were like, ‘We can do this. We know this,’” Cleary explains. “It wasn’t a difficult decision. We were like, ‘Oh my God, yes. We really want to do this.’ Let’s prove that we can do this.”

The Great British Bake Off Musical comes to the gingham table cloth-adorned table with an original story, rather than any plotlines based on previous real-life episodes. The presenters aren’t Mel and Sue, or later presenters Noel Fielding, Sandi Toksvig or Matt Lucas, but original characters played by Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige. There’s also a fictionalised cast of bakers, each an “amalgamation” of the contestants of seasons gone by. You can spot the archetypes: the chic European, the shy teenager, the lightly obnoxious vegan in a beanie hat. Grace Mouat, who’s previously starred in Six, is the posh student who dreams of using her win to secure a book deal and regular spot on Loose Women. “I’ll go to LA, open a cupcake takeaway/ Meanwhile in Harvey Nics, I’m the new face of Magimix,” she belts in “Obviously”, an attitude-filled anthem complete with references to Instagram and Beyoncé dance moves.

And then we have our judges. While the rest of the characters are fictionalised, these two might look familiar – even if Hollywood and Leith’s actual names can’t be used due to copyright. Owen-Jones, a musical theatre titan with an adoring legion of fans from his time as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, is our steely-eyed breadmaker. As his brightly dressed companion, you’ll find four-time Olivier nominee Gwynne – in Leith’s trademark glasses and beaded necklace, Gwynne is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s all done with a tongue firmly in cheek; both Leith and Hollywood have seen the show and given it their seal of approval.

Jay Saighal (Dezza) and Haydn Gwynne (Pam Lee) in ‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’ (handout)
Jay Saighal (Dezza) and Haydn Gwynne (Pam Lee) in ‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’ (handout)

In the current financial landscape, where the theatre industry is struggling post-Covid and the country is in the middle of a cost of living crisis, a musical needs a selling point more than ever. But Cleary is keen to point out that, while it uses existing “intellectual property”, often referred to as “IP”, (the set is an accurate recreation of the Bake Off tent), this show is that rare thing: an original British musical. “There are so few [musicals] that are homegrown completely by a British team – we’d like to think it stands up next to Matilda and Billy Elliot,” she says. “It’s not any less just because it’s based on a TV programme. My music is really hard... We’ve got really great complex choreography, we’ve got everything [those shows have], in terms of complexity and depth.”

Gwynne agrees. “It’s fun and it’s funny, but it’s moving too, so I think [audiences] will get a lot from it. Heartwarming can be a cheesy word, but I think the sophistication and the quality of the writing and the lyrics will surprise you.” There’s a “snootiness”, Gwynne says, an idea “that it’s some commercial exploitation of the title. Actually, a lot of really serious creative work has gone into it”.

Owen-Jones had appeared in the show when it was first staged in Cheltenham and talks rapturously about the experience, keen to stress he’s not spouting “the company line” when he calls it “one of the best shows I’ve ever been involved in”. With a background in “heavy” musical theatre, he jumped at the opportunity to take on something a little less serious. Still, Owen-Jones insists that the show carries “as much emotional clout”, adding, “There’s a moment where we all have to sing one note at the end, and I can’t quite get it [out] because I’m so choked up. It’s ridiculous – I’m in the show!” Gwynne, meanwhile, joined the project later on, without hearing the songs. “It was a bit of a leap of faith,” she says.

The cast of bakers are an ‘amalgamation’ of ‘Bake Off’ contestants gone by (Handout)
The cast of bakers are an ‘amalgamation’ of ‘Bake Off’ contestants gone by (Handout)

The cast and crew all mention the feeling and spirit of the show. Earlier pitches for the Bake Off musical had leant too heavily on the comedy, Kavanaugh explains, which is why Cleary and Brunger’s pitch was so refreshing. “I think that they completely understood the tone of what we wanted, so that it is witty without being satirical,” she says. “It’s not pantomimic, it doesn’t lampoon the show, it doesn’t lampoon the characters; nor is it worthy and earnest. They steer a very clever course in the writing, with emotion, and heartfelt stuff and lovely romantic stuff, but also stuff that’s properly funny.”

Composer Cleary wanted to create a score in keeping the “English country garden” tone of the show (series motifs and themes from composer Tom Howe are sprinkled throughout), with more modern musical theatre twists – numbers that could have been penned by Wicked creator Stephen Schwartz or featured in The Greatest Showman. The project carries particular weight for Cleary, who also wrote the music and lyrics for the acclaimed My Son’s A Queer (But What Can You Do?), and is the first woman to have two shows on in the West End.

What’s yet to be seen is whether audiences – and critics – will have a sweet enough tooth for The Great British Bake Off Musical. Will it rise to the top, or become the ultimate Marmite musical? There’s only one way to find out: on your marks, get set… bake!

‘The Great British Bake Off Musical’ runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 13 May