Few experiences in the theatre are more thrilling than immersive, promenading staging. Ever since as an 18 year old I found myself exactly halfway between Jesus (Mark McManus) and Judas (Jack Shepherd) having a staring contest in the National Theatre’s Return of the Passion in the old Cottesloe Theatre, there’s nothing quite like that frisson when you find yourself in the thick of it, in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. In their five, brief but successful years of mounting productions at the Bridge Theatre, we have enjoyed three promenade productions, and they’ve all been superb. There’s something about that acting space that lends itself to a standing audience so well. We were part of the Roman Mob in Julius Caesar; we cavorted with fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and now we’ve lived life on the streets of New York in Guys and Dolls; each of them directed by Nicholas Hytner.
Everyone knows the plot, based on Damon Runyan’s stories The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure, so it’s redundant for me to regurgitate here; however, I will. In a nutshell, Nathan Detroit, long engaged to cabaret artiste Miss Adelaide, is trying to find a location for his floating crap game. In the same neighbourhood, Sister Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission is trying to rescue sinners into the arms of Jesus. Top gambler Sky Masterson is in town; he accepts a bet from Detroit that he can take a woman of Detroit’s choosing to Havana, Cuba, for dinner. Detroit chooses Sarah; and whilst in Havana they fall in love. But will it be a double wedding with Nathan and Adelaide too? Of course it will!
There have been many productions of this show, and I don’t think it has ever been anything other than a big success. Nicholas Hytner’s vision to create an immersive version of the show works extremely well, as we get truly close up and intimate with the cast. We have a front row view at the Hotbox club; we’re shooting crap with all the other gamblers, we’re part of the meeting at the Mission, we’re shaking our funky stuff in Havana, and we’re propping up the bar with Adelaide and Sarah. Our involvement in each and every part of the show feels like a privilege. Even so, I felt that the production involved the promenaders slightly less than either Caesar or Dream; especially in the second act, where we basically stood our ground on the theatre floor and barely needed to move at all with the action. Not a criticism, merely an observation.
Few musicals have as many stunning songs as Guys and Dolls. Even the weaker songs are standards; honestly, why wouldn’t you love the simple kindness of More I Cannot Wish You? And this production brings out all the razzmatazz of the amazing score, with Tom Brady’s magnificent band working overtime with some truly lush arrangements. Everything about the show is spectacular, from the costumes to the New York neon signs, to Arlene Philips’ choreography and the incredible set that emerges up on platforms from out of the ground. You have a wonderful sense that you’re witnessing something special. And if you’re promenading, what otherwise might be just special becomes magic.
We loved Marisha Wallace in last year’s Oklahoma! and knew that she would be perfect as Miss Adelaide – and she is. Her voice and presence are sensational anyway – but she has just the right level of sassy knowingness combined with a vulnerability that absolutely suits Adelaide’s resentments against Nathan’s procrastinations but also knowing she can’t do without him. She’s wonderful in all the numbers, but perhaps especially so in Take Back Your Mink (including something of a surprise for one of the audience members) and in collaboration with Celinde Schoenmaker’s Sarah in Marry the Man Today. She, too, has an extraordinarily beautiful, pure voice which lends itself well to Sarah’s starchy respectability, and is all the more delightful when that facade of respectability takes a tumble.
Daniel Mays is an excellent Nathan Detroit, bringing out all the humour of his desperate need to placate all his gangster customers whilst furiously trying to make a profit too. Andrew Richardson is a fantastic discovery in his West End debut as Sky; another glorious voice and terrific stage presence with a lovely feel for the comedy in the role. Other standout performances include Cameron Johnson’s imperious Big Jule and Cedric Neal’s charismatic Nicely-Nicely Johnson; it’s no surprise that Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat gets the biggest and most prolonged cheer of the night.
One of those productions that makes you want to pinch yourself to believe it’s true. I can’t imagine we won’t return for another helping of New York thrills this summer – Guys and Dolls is playing at the Bridge until 2nd September. What are you waiting for?!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan