Review – Guys and Dolls, Bridge Theatre, London, 22nd March 2023

Guys and DollsFew 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.

HotboxEveryone 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!

Sky and SarahThere 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.

Crap Shooters BalletFew 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.

Sarah and AdelaideWe 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.

Sit DownDaniel 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.

AdelaideOne 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

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 16th January 2014

IMG_4829Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was jet-setting it across the States for a three hour meeting, I thought I’d take the opportunity to see Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre (or, as I like to call it, the Comedy theatre). It was a play I quite fancied the look of but thought it would be something Mrs C wouldn’t really appreciate. With hindsight, I think I was probably right, I don’t think she would have liked it much; but then again, I don’t think I liked it much either. I should say right from the start there are a few spoilers in this blog post, so if you’re still to see the show, and don’t know what happens, please ignore paragraphs four, ten and eleven.

Rupert GrintIt’s set in a dingy Soho club in the 1950s where a rock’n’roll set from young and upcoming star Silver Johnny is guaranteed to pull in the crowds, so the club makes a lot of money. But arguments and power struggles between Mr Johnny’s manager Ezra and local gangster Sam Ross end up with one dead manager and one kidnapped star. The club is run and staffed by a bunch of London hoodlums, and basically the play is about how this “management team” copes with the aftermath.

Gentle reader, I’m a pretty seasoned theatregoer. In my lifetime I’ve seen well over a thousand plays and shows. However, in order to encapsulate the nub of the play in a brief paragraph like the one above, I had to check Wikipedia and other sites that provide a synopsis in order to get the basis of the plot. I found the writing to be so deliberately obfuscating that I spent most of the play trying to understand what was going on without ever really being sure.

Daniel MaysStructurally it’s quite old-fashioned; it preserves many of the unities of classical theatre. It all takes place on the same day, in the same location, and there’s more or less one theme – how the guys are going to cope with the situation. But as a result, particularly in the first act, so many of the important events that shape the story happen off stage, with the result that you spend all the time watching people talk about other people you don’t meet and events you don’t see. For it to work as a play, you really have to be captured by the characters on stage, what they say and how they say it, because there’s nothing dramatic to look at. It’s all very reported, very wordy – and I’m afraid I found the first act really quite boring. The second act is better, because – finally – things actually start happening on stage; and the climax is riveting, certainly helped by the technical expertise of the actors and the set, when Mr Johnny is brought on, trussed up like a chicken, suspended by his feet on an abbatoir-style pulley system; and when one of the characters gets shot, the use of stage blood is very atmospherically done.

Ben WhishawIt’s written by Jez Butterworth, an author of some distinction, and everyone raves about his play “Jerusalem”, which I haven’t seen, as I confess to being new to his work. Mojo was indeed his first play, originally produced at the Royal Court in 1995, and it feels to me very like a “first play” – the author has some interesting characters, an imagination of a couple of stunning visual set pieces, a lot of cockily bad language, and a story to tell. But I do think the story comes last here, and its sense of dramatic narrative, rather like Feargal Sharkey’s “Good Heart”, is hard to find. And when you come away and ask yourself, “what was all that about then”, sadly I don’t feel Mr Butterworth had anything particularly enlightening to say about the characters or the world they inhabited; I don’t think this play changes the world in any way. It comes; it tells its story; it goes away. It left me with no residual impact. It’s one of those occasions where it’s not the sum of its parts.

Which is of course a great shame, as those parts, that it’s not the sum of, are pretty tremendous. Ultz’s set is very evocative of a grim nightspot and its unglamorous backstage offices. Charles Balfour’s lighting is used to great effect to create differences between the general murkiness of the club’s day to day activities and the outside world. The use of music and sound similarly suggest the possibility of external activity that doesn’t permeate into the small underworld presented to us. And the all-star cast are extremely good in their roles.

Mays and Grint double actAt the heart (not that it really has one) of the play is a virtual double act between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint in his first stage role and Daniel Mays. If this really is his stage debut, all credit to Mr Grint, whose performance is a delight. Sweets is a hyper-anxious, sucking-up, wheedling little guy who you sense is only part of the gang because he provides the pills (presumably the sweets of the nickname). His funny mannerisms suggest someone who knows he is punching above his weight but has no choice but to keep punching, and his speech delivery mimics anyone who he’s trying to impress. Think a young Ian Beale from Eastenders but with amphetamines. It’s a very assured performance and, if a long-lasting glittering career wasn’t in the bag before, surely it is now.

Ben Whishaw in Silver Johnny's jacketThe other half of the double act, Daniel Mays’ Potts, is a more experienced, more wise-cracking version of Sweets, unpredictable as to whether he will fly in the face of authority or cower in its presence. With similar speech patterns to Sweets, Messrs Mays and Grint perform a veritable verbal ballet together, the two becoming interchangeable, which is at times very funny indeed. Another very assured performance, and the audience loved him, but I found the character of Potts really irritating. I didn’t really feel there was a genuine character in there, more a generic caricature of 50s London gangsterhood; think Boycie from Only Fools and Horses but without the wealth and standing.

Colin MorganAnother superb performance (you would expect nothing less) comes from Ben Whishaw (compellingly good in Peter and Alice) as Baby, a really nasty piece of work. You can’t quite put your finger on where the character’s sadism is psychotic and he can’t really do anything about it, and where it is deliberate. He has a perfectly pitched highly unnatural laugh that would really scare you if you knew someone like that in real life. Every move he makes, everything he says, could be a threat – either veiled or actively intimidating. Mr Whishaw also has this ability to make himself (and his character) blend into the background, patiently waiting to pounce; which gives Baby’s input, whenever it comes, a greater impact.

Brendan CoyleColin Morgan’s Skinny is the drudge of the gang, given the most menial tasks in the club, and is the victim of much of Baby’s more savage attention. I sensed this was the character that Jez Butterworth liked the most, as you got more of an insight into his character than anyone else – his sense of self-worth (that no one else sees), his ambition, his misplaced vanity. It’s a funny and sad performance, and his death scene is magnificent. Baby’s murder of him is essentially ludicrous anyway, and they all make the best of the comic potential of the scene – the best-written part of the play I think – but when he shakes and can’t finish his words because he’s suddenly cold and is about to die, it’s a combination of humorous and harrowing, and surprisingly moving.

Tom Rhys HarriesBrendan Coyle’s Mickey is the low-level gangster boss, with a deeply threatening authoritative nature and aspirations of grandeur. When he seethes with anger you really feel it in the auditorium. Mr Coyle is, of course, best known as that respectable valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, who has the seeming ability to eliminate his opponents with quiet deadliness. Mr Coyle’s Mickey is exactly how you would imagine the “Mr Hyde” aspect of Bates to be, albeit with F words. This is not a man to mess with. But his world suddenly falls apart at the end with both the destruction of his ambitious plans and the assassination of his mate, and his delicately controlled performance very effectively showed how his authority quickly ebbed away.

MojoThe final member of the cast is the underused Tom Rhys Harries (whose performances we have enjoyed twice recently, in Torch Song Trilogy and The History Boys) as Silver Johnny, preparing for his show and then returning as the suspended plaything of a deranged brain. It’s a remarkable feat of endurance for Mr Harries to spend so long upside down like that. I do hope he got medical clearance first. There’s no insight into his character offered as he’s just a commodity as far as the plot is concerned.

I feel like I have missed out on something by not enjoying this play more; it just didn’t say anything to me though, despite the best efforts of its remarkable cast. Ah well, as we were once told by a guide hoping for tips from a bus load of Australian tourists, not every day is a Sunday.

not looking happy togetherPS. A full house gave the show massive whoops and cheers at the end from what sounded like young adoring female fans. The play itself is not one of those feelgood experiences that make you naturally want to explode with vocal joy. I’m guess they were specifically aimed at Mr Grint; maybe a planned campaign of “Whoops for Rupert”. Would that be “Roops”?

PPS. Despite the audience’s ecstatic reception, it was a very downbeat curtain call from the cast. Only Messrs Whishaw and Mays seemed to make any real eye contact with the audience, Mr Grint looked uncomfortable being there, and Mr Coyle looked like he would have rather been anywhere else. I guess that final scene must have taken it out of him.