Review – Guys and Dolls, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 4th January 2020

82276430_471085450481862_4812180997384699904_nOur traditional post-New Year weekend in Sheffield as a Christmas present to Lord and Lady Prosecco just got bigger. This year, also joined by Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and their assorted offspring, twelve of us descended on the St Paul’s Place Pizza Express before hitting the Crucible to enjoy this year’s Christmas show, Guys and Dolls.

Follow the FoldGuys and Dolls was, is, and always will be, one of the great American musicals. Jam-packed with memorable songs, outrageous characters, a heart-warming plot and great dance opportunities, it’s guaranteed to bring a smile to the stoniest of faces and an entrechat to the most lumpen of feet. This is the fourth time I’ve seen the show, most memorably the first time in 1982 when I saw a preview of That Famous National Theatre production starring Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins, Ian Charleson and Julie Covington (so when I say starring, I mean starring). Least memorable was the 2007 touring production with Alex Ferns and Samantha Janus (as she was then). There was also a fabulous 2014 Chichester production with Peter Polycarpou, Clare Foster, Sophie Thompson and Jamie Parker. Comparisons are of course odious but irresistible; so I’ll try to ignore the earlier productions!

Sky and NathanIf you don’t know the story of Guys and Dolls, where have you been all your life? Inspired by the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, meet the sniffly song-and-dance artiste Miss Adelaide, whose symptoms get worse throughout the show due to her fiancé, Nathan Detroit’s, inability to commit. Detroit tries to organise an illegal crap game without Miss Adelaide’s knowledge – she wouldn’t approve – but the one thousand bucks, as demanded by the Biltmore Garage to host the game, he ain’t got. Meanwhile, at the Save-a-Soul Mission, Sergeant Sarah Brown is trying to attract penitent punters to her hymn gatherings, but without much success. Enter Gambler Maestro Sky Masterson, a man with charisma bursting out of his wallet. To meet the Biltmore’s demand, Detroit bets $1000 that Masterson won’t take a girl of his choosing on a date to Havana, Cuba. Masterson accepts; Detroit chooses Sarah Brown; and if you don’t know the rest of the story, I’m not going to tell you.

Luck be a LadyDesigner Janet Bird has created an intriguing set with walls that slide in and out of place, and with outer revolving tracks that suggest busy sidewalks, to leave a usefully empty space in the middle for crap games, Hot Box dances and mission hall meetings. Will Stuart’s excellent band are perched aloft, inside what looks like an attic bar (nice for them). Intricate choreographer Matt Flint, back from last year’s Kiss Me Kate, has risen to the challenge of creating those big set piece dance numbers that are often a feature of the Crucible Christmas show. The Crap Shooters’ Ballet followed by Luck be a Lady is powerful and hard-hitting, as it should be; even more entertaining is the marvellous Havana salsa scene, which tells an entertaining story of a couple out for the night, except that he dances with Sarah and she dances with Sky and by the end of the evening they’re having a full-blown argument – all to enticing salsa rhythms, of course.

In the Hot BoxRobert Hastie has assembled a tremendous cast who all give great performances throughout. Natalie Casey emphasises Miss Adelaide’s camp cutesiness with some wicked facial expressions and vocal deliveries and brings bags of fun to the role whilst still recognising the character’s genuine inner sadness. Alex Young is superb as ever as Sarah Brown, with her magnificent voice taking on Frank Loesser’s iconic songs with supreme ease, her eyes summing up all the imperfections of Sky Masterson’s character with an instant loving scorn. It’s a great portrayal of a good girl gone not necessarily bad, but revelling in her defences being down.

I Got the Horse Right HereThe remarkably versatile Martin Marquez (whose abilities range from musical comedy in Anything Goes, farce in Boeing Boeing to contemporary drama in Blasted) is a mature Nathan Detroit, hiding desperately from his responsibilities to Miss Adelaide. He’s a great singer and provides a more romantic interpretation of the song Sue Me than I’d previously encountered. Kadiff Kirwan impresses as the suave Sky Masterson and also sings and dances terrifically. I’d not come across his work before, but with a great stage presence, Mr Kirwan could definitely be One To Watch for the future.

Nicely NicelyThere’s another superb partnership between TJ Lloyd as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Adrian Hansel as Benny Southstreet; their rendition of the song Guys and Dolls is a highlight of the whole show and of course Mr Lloyd is brilliant in Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat. I’d enjoyed Mr Hansel’s performance in Hairspray several years ago but Mr Lloyd is new to me – both actors lit up the stage every time they came on and I can’t wait to see them again in the future.

General CartwrightElsewhere in the cast there’s a kindly performance from Garry Robson as Arvide Abernathy, with a moving performance of More I Cannot Wish You; an enjoyably intimidating Big Jule played by Dafydd Emyr; and a spirited Hallelujah of a performance from one of my favourite actors, Dawn Hope as General Cartwright.

Marry the Man TodayPerhaps a slightly curious staging choice came at the end of the cheeky Marry The Man Today, when Detroit and Masterson appeared on stage and stopped Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown in their vocal tracks; rather than having the two women enjoy their moment of girlish fantasies they were forced to face the reality of their husbandly destinies in person, which made the female characters feel subservient to their men. The Countess of Cockfosters wasn’t impressed with this staging decision and on reflection I have to agree.

Guys and DollsNevertheless, although it’s almost a three-hour show the time simply flies by. Guys and Dolls maintains the high-quality tradition of the Crucible Christmas shows with its spectacle, skill and artistry, superb music and dance elements and provides plenty to talk about it the bar afterwards. Recommended!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London, 7th April 2012

Abigail's PartyIt’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.

The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.

Andy NymanDespite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.

Joe AbsolomOne part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.

Natalie CaseyWhich brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.

Susannah HarkerCompassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.

Jill HalfpennyAnd of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.

Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.

The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.

An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.

Review – The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory, December 5th

Invisible ManI’d seen and read a few reviews of this show in advance of seeing it, and they either loathed it or liked it begrudgingly, so I was a bit wary of the experience we were about to endure.

Let’s set the scene. Row A of the Menier. They couldn’t have positioned those seats lower to the floor. Really difficult to get in and out of the seats. You had to stretch your legs out to get any purchase. I was expecting a geisha to serve tea any minute. Also a bit on the side. Not too bad for our seats but the guys to our left must really have seen nothing more than a cardboard proscenium arch.

Gary Wilmot Anyway we are in a 1904 Music Hall and welcomed by the lively and opinionated MC; and because we remember Leonard Sachs so well, we knew how to react and join in with all the big words. The cast do an opening number (just as they do after the interval) and it’s all very jolly and “knowing winky”. Then we get into the main story, courtesy of an introduction from the Everyman character of Thomas Marvel (Gary Wilmot) and the show gets played out. I’m not sure the main story was really integrated with this Music Hall framework. It worked well enough, but almost by accident, I felt.

Maria Friedman Most of the first half felt frenetic, without any firm structure. The last scene in particular felt very long; there was a lot of physical business that they clearly wanted to get in, and it just felt a bit too…too. It was much improved after the interval when the freneticism somehow felt more engaging; and by the end I was well happy with the show.

Christopher Godwin Gary Wilmot is such a top performer, it was slightly odd to see him in a show where he had no song-and-dance to do. But he creates a super warm link with the audience in this intimate space and is a joy to watch. Underused too in that respect is Maria Friedman with only a little song-and-dance; bossing her way through the show as the dominating pub landlady and also being a joy. Underused in a different way is John Gordon Sinclair as Mr Invisible as he normally has marvellously expressive facial gestures which in this show you don’t get to see! Teddy Kempner Add to this great supportive performances from Christopher Godwin (Ayckbournian stalwart) and Teddy Kempner (I saw him as Snoopy about 100 years ago) which keep the show going at a great pace and I thought Natalie Casey as the moaning maid Millie was actually quite brilliant.

Natalie Casey Plus you also have a nice selection of magic tricks and effects. From our side Row A vantage point we could see how a few of them worked (for example pouring the wine into the glass in the air, and the floating handkerchief). Others were still totally baffling, and extremely effective.

So basically it’s an enjoyable romp. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek. Pure entertainment. Occasionally you could let your mind wander and then return a minute or so later and it wouldn’t be a problem. A very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.