Review – Oklahoma!, Young Vic, London, 28th May 2022

OklahomaWhen I saw that the Young Vic were showing the new, shaken-up Broadway version of Oklahoma! I knew it was something I had to see. Oklahoma! is one of my favourite musicals but you can never overlook the dark, violent prejudice and savagery that lurks just a little under the surface. The Chichester production from 2019 brought out all the joy of the show whilst exposing a lot of its iffy underbelly. Daniel Fish’s new production goes deeper, and a lot of what it reveals is truly horrific. But it’s also jam-packed with the humour that has always been a mainstay of this musical.

Laurey at the Box SocialYou know the show is going to be disturbing even before it starts. The transformed Young Vic auditorium is ablaze with bright light; the band sit at one end of the stage area, whilst trestle tables laden with cans of beer (that get consumed) and crockpots of chilli (that don’t) line along either side of the acting area and – for the first act – along the middle. The actors sit with their backs to us until it’s their time to join in the show. Unusually for a musical the programme doesn’t list the musical numbers, so unless you know the show intimately you don’t know what’s coming next or whereabouts in the sequence of scenes you are. You might assume from this that the music takes second place in the show’s priorities – but that’s not the case. The music is vital to the show, and frequently adds to the sense of irony and discord that permeates Daniel Fish’s vision for the production. Tom Brady’s band takes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sumptuous score and give it a modern twist; less Broadway 1943, more country guitar-heavy, but still with stunning singing from the cast who harmonise together exquisitely, with passion and power.

Curly and the bandThe iconic opening, where Curly sings Oh What a Beautiful Morning off stage whilst Aunt Eller churns butter, now has Curly onstage accompanying himself on his own guitar whilst Aunt Eller silently looks away with the rest of the cast. In fact, gone are the Curly and Laurey of yore, the adorable young couple who win your heart, and whom you want to see living happy ever after at the end. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is vain and arrogant; his swagger barely conceals his scorn for his surroundings, and you get the sense he’s more isolated, not really part of the community; you wouldn’t believe anyone who says he’s their friend. However, this characterisation is juxtaposed with his surprisingly delicate and eloquent singing voice. Anoushka Lucas’ Laurey, on the other hand, is temperamental and sullen; she bats Curly’s approaches away as though he were just another “typical man” for whom she has neither time nor interest – until things start to get physical, at any rate. If and when this Curly and Laurey get together you feel that the sparks will fly in their relationship and not always in a good way.

Ali and JudWhere the show is much more traditional is in the representation of the four comedy characters, Ado Annie, Will Parker, Ali Hakim and Gertie Cummings, each one played sublimely. Rebekah Hinds gets Gertie’s irritating cackle perfectly, and suggests a superb smugness whenever she gets her way over anything (or anyone). Stavros Demetraki is hilarious as Hakim, desperately trying to put more money Will’s way so that he can be freed from his commitment to Ado Annie. James Davis, who played Will in this production on Broadway, brilliantly portrays just how utterly stupid the character is, constantly infuriating himself with his own mistakes.

Ado AnnieAlthough she has a lot of stage credits to her name, I’ve never seen Marisha Wallace before, but I was blown away by just how fantastic she is as Ado Annie. Filling the theatre with the most powerful and beautiful of voices, she has immense stage presence and injects everything the character does with just the right amount of comedy, as well as perfect interplay with the audience. Her performance of I Cain’t Say No is the true highlight moment of the show. All the way through, I couldn’t wait for her next appearance because she lights up the stage with such genuine pleasure. Simply marvellous!

AndrewI hardly recognised Greg Hicks as Andrew Carnes; if you’ve seen this role played as a lovable old rogue before, think again. Mr Hicks makes him a truly hard man. No sense of humour or kindness; a man who thinks with his gun first then might reflect afterwards (or might not). He’ll aim his barrels at anyone who dallies with his daughter; I thought he was going to blast a few heads off early on and finish the show before the interval. Liza Sadovy’s Aunt Eller is another characterisation that feels more remote and detached from the community, until, at least, she’s in charge of the auction of lunch baskets. There’s excellent support from Raphael Bushay as Mike and Ashley Samuels as Cord Elam; their hesitations at supporting the decision of Judge Andrew towards the end spoke volumes. But the whole cast does a great ensemble job, with terrific singing and dancing – a lot of full-bodied hard-floor thumping to get a resoundingly noisy beat effect.

JudOne of many fascinating directorial decisions in the show – some of which work, and some don’t – is the characterisation of Jud Fry. It’s in the characters’ dealings with Jud that this show gets particularly uncomfortable. Jud is usually portrayed as a loner. Papering his bedroom walls with soft porn to make him seem like a worthless wretch, picking on his learning difficulties, or sometimes on his ethnicity, he’s often seen as the antithesis of Curly, who’s All-American Hero in comparison to Pore Jud. However, Patrick Vaill (who also played the role on Broadway) presents us with a very different Jud. He’s passive, quiet, unemotional; determined but unthreatening, and probably no more of an outsider than Curly is. Rather than being the monster or ogre that he’s normally portrayed, this Jud is just another guy. And that makes Curly’s persecution of him strangely more uncomfortable – other than the fact that Curly’s a bully and wants nothing and no one to stand in his way.

ProjectionSo here’s the first directorial decision that I really didn’t understand. The two scenes where Curly intimidates and interrogates Jud are played in total blackout. All you can follow is by what you hear the two men say to each other. No visual cues, no facial expressions, no physical movement. Apart from the fact that it puts the audience in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position as well, it acts as a barrier to communication; and you can feel the built-up energy of the show quickly sap away as the scene progresses. The fact that you can’t see Curly and Jud’s interactions means that you can’t really understand what goes on between them. And whilst we have seen Curly in action several times during the show, Jud’s presence has only been very minimal, apart from in these two scenes – where you can’t see him! After a while, a camera projects Jud’s image onto the back wall during the song Pore Jud is Daid, but it’s distorted and artificial, and by that time I was so exasperated at being literally kept in the dark that I resented this piece of direction. I felt it was disrespectful to the audience. <rant>Rather like the moment when Ali Hakim unnecessarily and totally out of character sprays beer (actually water but we weren’t sure) over some members of the audience, including Mrs Chrisparkle. She was genuinely concerned it might have ruined her new leather jacket. It would have done if it was beer. The poor man next to her was soaked. Come on, Young Vic, treat us like adults! This isn’t a panto! </rant>.

Aunt EllerOdd decision number 2 coming up: it’s always difficult to incorporate the dream ballet sequence in the show. Nowadays it doesn’t fit in with our expectations and comes across as a purely historical interlude that the show would be better off cutting out. However, if you keep it in, it has to be relevant. It’s Laurey’s dream, so it should be performed by Laurey. If it has a meaning, it’s to process her anxieties regarding her forthcoming marriage to Curly. So I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the dream dance sequence in this production at all. Nothing against Marie-Astrid Mence who throws herself brilliantly into John Heginbotham’s frankly ugly and irrelevant choreography and moves in time with the ghastly distorted musical accompaniment that’s brash, discordant and way too loud. And my word, did it go on….!

Box SocialThere is a third directorial decision that works well – but, good grief, is it horrible! I’m not going to give the game away too much because the shock of the staging is vital to the show’s effect. I knew that Curly was going to shoot Jud near the end – he always does, it’s part of the plot. What I wasn’t expecting was the physical aftermath, both in the actual appearance of the characters and in their change of demeanour. When Curly leads the cast for what is normally the final, triumphant rendition of the title song, so shocked is he at what has happened that he is literally like a zombie. His mouth is singing the words, his hands are strumming the guitar, but the soul inside has gone awol. Laurey joins in with demented fury, eyes on stalks, stamping and shouting like Lady Macbeth on an acid trip.

Laurey and Curly in greenBut this is the message that the show wants to send. The action takes place at the time when Oklahoma was all set to be the next state of the union. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma, goes the uplifting, unforgettable melody, as the state triumphantly sails into the next century. This show points out that the rot has already set in. There’s nothing fine about this Oklahoman society, riddled with injustice and corruption, hatred and contempt. What is normally a sweet ending is rendered bitterly sour. And the production is hugely successful at revealing this ugly truth.

Jud and CurlyBut if you’re a fan of the traditional show like me, even though you appreciate its dark undercurrent and murky prejudices, watching this production left me feeling physically nauseous. My stomach was frappéd like I’d been involved in the Oklahoma Chain Saw Massacre. By far the majority of the audience stood to give it a rapturous ovation, and I completely understand why; but I was rooted to the spot, giving a slowish handclap in disbelief at what I had seen. I’m writing this five days after seeing the show and I can still feel that sense of horror and destruction that this production has created in me. I can only say that you must see this show for yourself to truly appreciate what it reveals. It’s on until 25th June, but this is too much of a landmark production for it to stop there. I only wonder if there will ever be space for a traditional Oklahoma! again.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Yet another bunch of theatre memories – October 1980 to July 1981

Twenty more shows for your consideration – including some more student productions, so this a bigger-than-average memory blog!

  1. Ballet Rambert – New Theatre, Oxford, 23rd October 1980.

image(926)Another mixed programme of contemporary dance, including favourite dancers Catherine Becque, Ikky Maas, Lucy Bethune and Michael Clark. The four dances performed were Christopher Bruce’s Preludes and Song, Richard Alston’s Rainbow Ripples and Antony Tudor’s Judgment of Paris and Dark Elegies. Having seen Rainbow Ripples, my friend Mike spent the best part of the next 25 years occasionally breaking into the meaningless Rainbow Bandit. Rainbow Chuck Bandit. Chuck Bandit. And so on. As always, a terrific night of dance.

  1. Lark Rise – Oxford University Dramatic Society at the Burton Rooms, Oxford, October 1980.

image(924)image(925)OUDS’ production of Lark Rise was performed in promenade just like the National Theatre version, directed by Tim Whitby and with music composed by Oscar-winner-to-be Rachel Portman. My friend Mark played Boamer and Cheapjack; elsewhere in the cast list was Chris Bryant who has been MP for Rhondda since 2001. Can’t remember much else about it.


  1. Catch 22 – Keble Tyrrells Drama Society, Keble College, Oxford, November 1980.

Joseph Heller’s groundbreaking novel given an adaptation by Alan Durant, who also designed and directed the show, and today is a very successful children’s author. Yossarian was played by Jonathan Darby, and my friend Andrew played Major Major amongst other roles. I remember seeing a production of Catch 22 a few years back which announced itself as the first ever dramatization of the book, and saying to myself – err, that’s wrong, I saw it in Oxford as a student!


  1. Three Sisters – Oxford University Dramatic Society at the Oxford Playhouse, 6th December 1980.

image(937)image(938)Chekhov’s great play given the OUDS treatment with a top quality cast that not only included my friend Mark as Kulygin, but also had Jon (now Jonathan) Cullen as Prozorov, a young Imogen Stubbs as Irina (her first stage performance, I believe), and political philosopher Adam Swift as Fedotik. I remember this was a stonkingly good production and all the young actors acquitted themselves tremendously well.


  1. Hinge and Bracket at the Globe – Globe Theatre, London, 9th December 1980.

image(932)image(933)image(934)This was the first time I got to see the Dear Ladies themselves in this hilarious two-hander revue where Doctor Evadne Hinge spent most of the time with her nose out of joint as she accompanied the frequently insensitive Dame Hilda Bracket as she soprano’d her way through some long- and best-forgotten pieces. Hinge and Bracket were an incredibly inventive and creative drag act who could target their material at both the liberals in the Theatre and the more conservative listeners to Radio 4. I guess their humour didn’t suit everyone but I always found them completely hysterical and I loved every minute of this show. As they spied a guy nipping off to the Gents during the show they inquired after his wellbeing and on his return asked him “Could you hear us?” When he said he couldn’t, Doctor Evadne threw back “oh…. We could hear you”. Comedy genius. I saw all these Christmas holidays shows by myself, no one else wanted to come out and play, sadly!

  1. The Biograph Girl – Phoenix Theatre, London, 11th December 1980.

image(942)image(943)Harold Fielding’s production of this much-expected show received a barrage of bad reviews and by the time I saw it, three weeks into the run, it was already on its last legs, and it’s not been seen since. Shame really, as it’s not a bad show and it has some great songs, about the crises faced by performers who were big stars in the days of silent movies but when the talking pictures came in – unfortunately their voices were not up to the job. Sheila White played Mary Pickford, the Biograph Girl herself, but on the night I was there I overheard some important-looking people muttering and grumbling to themselves that “she’s refusing to go on” “she won’t listen to reason” and such like. Sure enough, that night (and I believe on many nights) Mary Pickford was played by her understudy. Directed by Victor Spinetti and also featuring Allo Allo’s Guy Siner as Mack Sennett, I quite enjoyed it despite everything; Put it in the Tissue Paper is a genuine tearjerker and the title track is a banger!


  1. Oklahoma! – Palace Theatre, London, 16th December 1980.

image(939)image(940)image(941)Courtesy of the Haymarket Theatre Leicester, this rip-roaring spectacular production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s landmark musical was directed by none other than Hammerstein’s son James, and starred Australian John Diedrich as Curly and Rosamund Shelley as Laurey. Madge Ryan as Aunt Eller, and, perhaps most interestingly, Alfred Molina played Jud. I enjoyed it, but at this stage of my life I found episodes like the long dream ballet sequence relentlessly tedious. It would take several decades to change that opinion!

  1. Dangerous Corner – Ambassadors’ Theatre, London, 20th December 1980.

image(969)image(970)Another two-show day, Robert Gillespie’s production of J B Priestley’s classic time play had only opened three days before I saw it, and I found it absolutely riveting. As a result of seeing this, I went out and bought the text to all Priestley’s plays, but this one is probably my particular favourite. An excellent cast was led by Jennifer Daniel and Clive Francis. Not much more needs to be said!


  1. Early Days – Comedy Theatre, London, 20th December 1980.

image(966)image(967)image(968)David Storey’s latest play had opened at the National earlier in the year and finally received its West End transfer in time for Christmas. Ralph Richardson led the cast, which also included Gerald Flood, and it was directed by the redoubtable Lindsay Anderson. Sir Ralph played a retired MP who was drifting into dementia and was being looked after by his increasingly irritable family. A very sad and moving play given some great performances.

  1. Pal Joey – Albery Theatre, London, 23rd December 1980.

image(984)image(985)A cracking show with a brilliant production that had come from the Half Moon Theatre in Whitechapel (now, sadly, a pub). Denis Lawson and Sian Phillips led the cast in this story of a despicable but lovable louse, and the women he mistreats as he scrambles his way to what he thinks is the top – by which time there’s no one left to love him. Brilliant songs (and an excellent cast album which I still play often) made this a must-see production at the time. Notable for its reinstated original lyrics for Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, plus entertaining references to Ravel’s Bolero and Ronald Reagan, to give it a modern twist. Wonderful supporting performances from Danielle Carson as Linda, Darlene Johnson as Melba, and all the night club girls (Jane Gurnett, Buster Skeggs, Lynne Hockney, Kay Jones, Susan Kyd and Tracey Perry). Funny, musical and enormously entertaining.


  1. Orpheus – St Hugh’s Players, Morden Hall, Oxford, January 1981.

image(982)image(983)A student production, which was an original adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus for stage. I regret I can’t remember too much about it, although it featured my friends Linda and Andrew, and starred Wally Upton and Helen Dodds in the main roles.

  1. London Contemporary Dance Theatre – New Theatre, Oxford, February 1981.

image(980)image(981)During their Spring Tour of 1981 the London Contemporary Dance Theatre dropped in at the New Theatre Oxford to present two premieres and a five-year-old dance. The programme started with Robert North’s Death and the Maiden, which has lasted long in many dance repertories; then Siobhan Davies’ Something to Tell, and finally the return of Robert Cohan’s Masque of Separation. The superb company included favourites such as Robert North himself, Janet Smith (who would go on to launch her own excellent dance company), Darshan Bhuller, who’s had an extraordinarily successful career in dance, and Kenneth Tharp, “merely” the Apprentice, currently CEO of the Africa Centre London.

  1. Moving – Queen’s Theatre, London, 16th March 1981.

image(1002)image(987)When I should have been revising hard for my finals, (a comment that applies to this and the next six productions) I saw this comedy by Stanley Price which later was developed into a TV series. It had a great cast to include Penelope Keith, Peter Jeffrey, Roger Lloyd Pack, Barbara Ferris and Miranda Richardson, but I felt it needed to be funnier than it actually was. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining night at the theatre.


  1. Virginia – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 24th March 1981.

image(996)image(997)Edna O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf, taken from the author’s own writings, starred Maggie Smith as Virginia, Nicholas Pennell as Leonard and Patricia Connolly as Vita. As a student of literature, I had often tried, but largely failed, to get into the works of Virginia Woolf and I’m afraid this thoroughly boring play didn’t help matters at all. A delight of course to see Maggie Smith in the flesh, but that was all.



  1. The Crucible – Comedy Theatre, London, 31st March 1981.

image(1009)image(1010)image(995)Arthur Miller’s brilliant play that aligns the Salem Witch Trials with American McCarthyism was given a very strong outing in this National Theatre production by Bill Bryden that had transferred from the Cottesloe. The cast was led by the fantastic Mark McManus as John Proctor, with a terrifyingly nerve-racking performance by Caroline Embling as Abigail, James Grant as Reverend Hale and a dignified J G Devlin as Giles Corey. Gripping, exciting drama – I loved it.

  1. I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road – Apollo Theatre, London, 3rd April 1981.

image(1017)image(1018)image(1005)I always thought this powerful and feelgood musical should have made a much greater impact than it did – one of those magical mysteries of theatre life that no one can really understand. It ran for almost three years in New York, but only a few months in London. Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s show about a 40 year old female singer doing her own work in her own way, attempting a comeback into the world of pop music had many excellent songs and a superb central performance by the great Diane Langton as Heather, and also a great performance by Ben Cross as her unbending manager. Its failure was maybe because of its being perceived as a feminist diatribe – but I really don’t remember it being preachy in any way. I enjoyed it a lot, and still have my souvenir badge! Interesting fact – the excellent Nicky Croydon, who was also terrific in this show, was Diane Langton’s understudy in A Chorus Line.

  1. Man and Superman – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 6th April 1981.


Shaw’s fantastic play was given a massive production at the National, directed by Christopher Morahan, and with a cast to die for led by Daniel Massey, with Basil Henson, Penelope Wilton, Anna Carteret, Michael Bryant and Greg Hicks. Usually productions cut the long allegorical Don Juan in Hell sequence in the middle – but not this one. Yes, it really was 4 and a half hours long. I loved it so much I bought the poster and it graced the walls of my digs for the next couple of years.


  1. They’re Playing our Song – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 10th April 1981.

image(1025)image(1026)I saw this with the Dowager Mrs C – we were expecting a great show, and we got one! Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s autobiographical musical of how they met and worked together, and how it all unravelled, is full of fun and pathos, terrific songs and two enviable roles for two great actors. Tom Conti on top form, and accompanied by Gemma Craven’s stand-in, Nancy Wood, who I understand probably performed the role more often than Ms Craven. Mrs C and I still sing the title track at the drop of a hat whenever the need arises. Marvellous show!


  1. Titus Alone – Merton Floats and Experimental Theatre Company at the Oxford Playhouse, 15th May 1981.

image(1029)image(1030)“In its first adaptation for the stage” proudly proclaims the programme. The adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s novel and its stage direction was by Patrick Harbinson who has gone on to write many successful TV films and series. Nigel Williams played Titus, and this looks as though this must have been a tremendous production, but it was so close to Finals that my thoughts must have been elsewhere as I cannot remember one solitary thing about it.

  1. The Business of Murder – Duchess Theatre, London, 15th July 1981.

image(1035)image(1036)image(1040)Richard Harris is best known for his work on TV scripts and for adapting his plays into TV series and vice versa. The Business of Murder is a suspense thriller that enjoyed a very good run, and starred Francis Matthews and George Sewell. Although Finals were now over, I must have still been drunk because I also cannot remember a blind thing about this show. Must have been good though, to enjoy such a long run! From the production photos, it looks as though Mr Matthews spent most of the play pointing angrily at other cast members.

Thanks for accompanying me on this long day’s journey into night. Next regular blog will be back to the Holiday snaps and we’re now on J – for Japan, and three days in Tokyo in August 2014. Stay safe!

Review – Oklahoma! Festival Theatre, Chichester, 27th July 2019

OklahomaThere’s a bright golden haze on the medder, sang Curly, all by himself, at the very beginning of Oklahoma! on its first night at the St James Theatre on Broadway in 1943, and its audience was gripped. It was the first time a big musical had opened with a lone voice rather than a group number; the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein had collaborated; and the first time that a “dream ballet” sequence showed us the secret fears of a lead character. You can only imagine the excitement of that first night crowd. In Britain, at that time immersed in the Second World War, we had to wait until 1947 to see it for ourselves, but I am sure it was worth the wait.

Hyoie O'GradyIt was also the first time that the book of a musical and its songs were fully integrated so that the music progressed our understandings of the characters. That was a development that had started with Show Boat; maybe recession and/or war kick start the creative spirit and encourage writers and composers to devise a work to bring us out of the gloom and into a happier place. Certainly those early audiences for Oklahoma! would have had their troubles, on both sides of the pond. You can envisage the theatregoers at the St James, the rows filled with uniformed servicemen either on leave or preparing for war, clinging on to a vestige of normality before being transported to who knows where for who knows what. There’s a revealing and rather heart-warming story mentioned in the programme, where the writer John Hersey told Richard Rodgers that “on a gritty battlefield in Sicily, a GI had awakened one morning and poured some cold water in his helmet to shave. Suddenly he began singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” […] There was a fair amount of irony in his singing and his pals laughed”. To be honest, if I had been that GI, I would have done the same.

Amara OkerekeSo there’s a number of reasons why Oklahoma! (you have to include the !, otherwise it’s just a state) isn’t going away yet. A handsome young suitor courts a pretty young girl, but she’s made promises to another guy, so the two men are rivals; that’s a story as old as the hills. Surrounding them are the good influences of a kindly aunt, a pragmatic judge/lawmaker, a best friend who cain’t say no and the well-meaning but rather hopeless young chap who’s in love with her. In the background, we’re in early 1900’s Native American country, with its diverse ethnic spread, racial tensions, and itinerant immigrants; social division is everywhere – even the Farmer and the Cowman aren’t necessarily friends – and instead of churning butter, Aunt Eller is first seen cleaning her gun, setting the tone for the whole show. Will has just come back from Kansas City, where he saw astounding modern advancements, the like of which couldn’t be imagined in underdeveloped Oklahoma. Nevertheless, those hopeful aspirations are palpable; keep moving forwards and maybe soon they’ll also be part of that great United States of America. Work hard and be lucky; slack and you lack. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.

Josie Lawrence and CompanyApart from the still relevant and contemporary nature of the story, it has a fantastic score without a duff note or a weak lyric, and some colourful, sparky, memorable characters creating a fine balance of comedy and pathos. Jeremy Sams’ new production takes all the show’s ingredients and creates a high impact treat, both visually and musically, which never shies away from the darker side of what’s going on, and there are a couple of moments where you shrink back in your seat in horror….

CompanyRobert Jones’ set and Mark Henderson’s lighting intertwine throughout the evening to make that golden haze, that Curly sings about in the first moments, a reality; enhanced by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes. Light brown jackets and waistcoats, together with golden bales of wheat and tan saddles, all add to that colour scheme, whilst the backdrop and ceiling are bathed in blue to create a strong sunshiny feel. By contrast, Jud’s black dungarees and Ali Karim’s lurid green jacket and red trousers demonstrate that they’re outsiders.

Isaac Gryn and CompanyWhen I first saw Oklahoma! on stage, at the Palace Theatre back in 1980, I remember being thoroughly bored by the dream ballet sequence, regarding it as an antiquated construct that had no place in contemporary theatre. What an arrogant little brat I must have been. The (relatively) recent national tour production had the benefit of being choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose star has continued to rise, and transformed what could otherwise be a dull interlude into a fantastic set piece, incorporating other routines from the rest of the show. And in this new production, choreographer Matt Cole has also risen to the challenge of the dream ballet, working with the lighting and costume design to create a vivid fantasy nightmare for Laurey, that contrasts the romance of being pushed by Curly on a garden swing, and the white dresses of a perfect wedding day, with the black and red of Parisian strumpets doing scandalous Fosse-type routines reflecting Jud’s predilection for postcard porn. At the end there’s a fight where Jud floors Curly and kicks him into a pit surrounded by flames. No one falls asleep during this dream ballet, I assure you.

Emmanuel KojoThe fantastic fire-ography continues in the second half, when the usually happy, primary-coloured rousing title song turns from a celebration of everything that’s good about life into a torch-wielding, white supremacist lynch mob, about to go hunting for Jud. With those few, terrifying, staring seconds at the end of the song, they create a sinister, violent air; and, sure enough, Curly kills Jud (sorry for the spoiler), maybe accidentally, maybe not. Judge Andrew dispenses justice quickly and pragmatically in favour of Curly, and you take a step back from the scene and realise that this is a complete stitch-up against Jud. There’s a guilty red stain on the medder…

Scott Karim and Isaac GrynIt’s vital for a successful production of Oklahoma! that the two young lovers are performed by likeable actors; and Hyoie O’Grady as Curly and Amara Okereke as Laurey are not merely likeable, they’re totally adorable. As far as I can see both have had only limited experience on stage to now (although both are graduates of the Les Miserables cast change challenge) but they are superb. Mr O’Grady boasts a fine line in slightly vulnerable brashness; he’s the kind of guy all the men in the audience want to be, and all the women in the audience (and some of the men) wish their men were. Ms Okereke gives a beautiful and intelligent performance as the confused Laurey, reflecting the simplicity of the character’s life till now, her rightly judged self-esteem and her fears for the future. Both are natural exponents of the art of musical theatre, Ms Okereke in particular filling the vast Festival Theatre with her spectacularly emotional and rich voice. Two young actors who are definitely on the One To Watch list!

Josie LawrenceJosie Lawrence, whom we last saw in the brilliant Edmond de Bergerac in Northampton earlier this year, brings all her warmth and comic timing to the role of Aunt Eller; her on-stage chemistry with Curly and, particularly, Laurey, works beautifully as she acts as a kind of Pandarus between the two. She also has a delightful glint in her eye as she takes her place in the thick of all the dancing cowboys; it’s no surprise that she turns up in Laurey’s dream ballet as the brothel Madame. There’s another excellent partnership between Isaac Gryn as Will and Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie; he, fresh-faced and willing, if a trifle thick and she, wide-eyed, openly semi-promiscuous and easily influenced. Miss Barbé has a growing reputation as one of our new stars of musical theatre, and Mr Gryn is another new find who is already sensational at fronting a big dance number.

Isaac Gryn and Bronte BarbeThere’s a tour de force from the terrific Emmanuel Kojo as Jud, portraying him not as the grotesque pantomime ogre that he is sometimes played, but as a realistic, believable man – a loner, a victim of circumstance, but with plans and ambitions that are as valid as anyone else’s. His chilling scene with Hyoie O’Grady for Pore Jud is Daid, where Curly tries to sing Jud into taking his own life with the rope, plays to Mr Kojo’s strengths as he remains assertively immune to Curly’s suggestions, purely concentrating on his own wants from life. There are also great comedy turns from Emily Langham as the cackling Gertie Cummings and Scott Karim as the exotic wide boy Ali Hakim, expensively extricating himself from an unwanted marriage in a beautifully funny auction scene. And there’s a fantastically talented supporting ensemble in great voice, who bring Matt Cole’s stunning choreography to life.

Hyoie O'Grady and Josie LawrenceThere are those who maintain that musical theatre is an inferior form of the art and that it can achieve nothing more than moderate light entertainment. To those people, I say Phooey! Oklahoma! is proof that you can reflect and convey the full range of emotions of human existence and still come out singing People will say we’re in love. That takes some skill indeed. This is a fantastic production that went down a storm in the theatre; if it doesn’t transfer, I’ll eat my cowhide.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oklahoma! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2015

OklahomaWhen it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.

Ashley Day and Charlotte WakefieldBut it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.

Charlotte WakefieldThen there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.

Belinda LangSo it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).

Gary WilmotThe choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?

James O'Connell and Lucy May BarkerThe show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.

Charlotte Wakefield in rehearsalThere are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.

Belinda Lang in rehearsalThe ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.

Nic GreenshieldsAnd that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.

Gary Wilmot in rehearsalOklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!

Publicity photos by Pamela Raith