Review – Guys and Dolls, Festival Theatre Chichester, 20th September 2014

Guys and Dolls 2014Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who said (and I think it was) that the best musical ever written is Carmen? Or maybe it was me. No, it wouldn’t have been me because my favourite musical of all time is A Chorus Line, and nothing is ever going to change me from that – inflexible though that sounds. But of all the other musicals ever written, a big contender for the title of Best Ever is without doubt Guys and Dolls, which fills your heart with happiness and pathos non-stop for two and a half hours and is jam-packed with a score that soars.

Guys and Dolls 1982It’s based on the Broadway-based short stories of Damon Runyon and tells the tales of two ladies. Miss Adelaide is the star at the Hot Box revue and has been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years. Unsurprisingly, she’s getting a bit fed up of her status, which has brought on psychosomatic sniffles. Nathan’s a bit of a lazy so-and-so and just makes his money from organising floating crap games – and although he’s promised Miss Adelaide that he’s stopped this reckless and illegal way of making a living, he hasn’t. Sister Sarah Brown is a prim but kind-hearted Salvationist at the Save A Soul Mission. If she doesn’t get more sinners to attend her meetings, the mission is going to get closed down. Enter inveterate gambler (and charmer) Sky Masterson, who wins a bet and the lady’s heart even though he’s not at all the kind of guy she’d imagined she’d want. Do Miss Adelaide and Nathan eventually get married? Does Sky arrange for all the local gamblers to attend the prayer meeting and convince Sarah that he’s the right guy for her? Of course they do!

The Oldest EstablishedAlthough it is undoubtedly a top-notch show, it’s not perfect – it breaks the Chrisparkle Cardinal Rule for a great musical, which is that every song must move the story or character development forward. There’s nothing worse than a musical where you have plot development then stop for a song, then more plot development, then stop for a song, and so on ad nauseam, mentioning no names (42nd Street). Guys and Dolls has two songs that are simply excuses for Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box girls to show us what they’re made of – the rather silly Bushel and a Peck, and the utterly brilliant Take Back Your Mink. They’re nothing more than dramatic interludes, but I break my Cardinal Rule and forgive them for that, due to the sheer entertainment value. There are also two sequences that seem rather dated today but fit perfectly to the “standard musical formula” of the time – this was written in 1950 – the ubiquitous musical ballet sequences. Think Oklahoma’s Dream Ballet or Carousel’s Billy Makes a Journey. However, they do have a purpose. The Havana sequence allows us to see Sarah Brown let her hair down, and the Crap Shooters’ Ballet serves as a lively aperitif to – indeed almost an extension of – Luck Be A Lady.

Take Back Your MinkChichester’s production of Guys and Dolls is a spectacular success. Beautiful to look at, thrilling to hear, and with some sensational performances that really take your breath away. Every department – lighting, sound, costume, choreography – excels. This was only the second time in all my years of theatregoing that I’ve seen this show – and it was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first. I remember with huge affection the National Theatre’s amazing production that I saw at a preview performance on 4th March 1982, starring a most glorious cast. I know it’s rude to compare, but it’s my blog and I’ll compare if I want to. Sadly, I may have to use the phrase “the late great” a few times in this paragraph. Miss Adelaide was played by Julia McKenzie, absolutely at the top of her musical skills and she was fantastic. Big Jule and NathanFor Nathan Detroit we had none other than the late great Bob Hoskins, and you can just imagine how much characterisation he gave it. Sarah Brown was the wonderful Julie Covington, who put such sincere expression into every scene, and Sky Masterson was the late great Ian Charleson – if only he had lived he would have undoubtedly been one of the greatest ever actors. Even dropping down the cast list there were some incredible names – Nicely-Nicely Johnson was the late great David Healy, beaming with happiness and brilliant throughout. Benny Southstreet was Northern Broadsides’ very own Barrie Rutter; Arvide Abernathy the late great John Normington; Harry the Horse was the amazing Bill Paterson; Brannigan was the late great Harry Towb; and Mimi in the chorus was played by someone called Imelda Staunton. With the help of a superb cast album, so much of that production is alive in my mind as if it were yesterday. So this Chichester revival had a lot to live up to – but without question it achieves it.

Sky and the gangSophie Thompson plays Miss Adelaide like she’s been waiting all her life to do it. I’ve only seen her once before, in Clybourne Park, where she gave a fantastic performance. But her Miss Adelaide is just wonderful. Delivering all the sadness as well as the humour in the brilliant Adelaide’s Lament, timing it to perfection with some daringly long pauses as you see the truth of her situation slowly occurring to her. There is an element of caricature to her performance, but then there’s more than an element of caricature about the whole character of Miss Adelaide, and it’s a perfect fit. She’s vivacious in the Hot Box songs, moving and funny in her arguments with Nathan, and just sublime with Sarah in Marry The Man Today. Quite simply a star performance.

Sit DownPeter Polycarpou plays Nathan Detroit with a downtrodden, can’t-ever-win attitude, which really emphasises the humour of his situation and character. He’s got natural stage authority and is a superb singer. His is a very different Nathan from Bob Hoskins’, who was more cheeky and chancy; Mr Polycarpou’s Nathan is quieter and wiser – less caricature, more real. As Sarah Brown, Clare Foster is a revelation, with an incredible vocal range and she switches from the prim and proper Sarah to the letting-her-hair-down Sarah really convincingly. I’d forgotten that we’d also seen her in Merrily We Roll Along, where she was extremely good, but here in Guys and Dolls, her performance is an absolute stunner. I was also very impressed with the way she kept up with the other sensational dancers in the Havana scene – choreographer Carlos Acosta couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. And Sky Masterson is played by the excellent Jamie Parker, who’s always rewarding to watch, and is perfect casting for this charismatic and enigmatic character.

Sarah and SkyThe biggest number of course comes from Nicely-Nicely Johnson leading the sinners in the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat. Harry Morrison gives it great attack and comic vitality, and sends it as way over the top as it can be, which is perfect for this tongue-in-cheek homage to being good without being godly. It went down a storm, as it always does. However, I was reminded of the 1982 version, which David Healy and the whole ensemble delivered so magnificently, that it literally stopped the show. Harry Towb came on as Brannigan to deliver his next line that moves us on from the song, and he waited, and he waited, but the audience wouldn’t let up with its noisy delighted applause, and in the end he threw up his hands and went off again while they all did a full encore. That was a theatrical magic moment. But comparisons are indeed odious, and that takes nothing away from Mr Morrison’s tremendous performance. He also does a fantastic job, with Ian Hughes as Benny, with the song Guys and Dolls, a really lively, funny, and engaging rendition of that number.

Marry the Man todayI loved Neil McCaul’s robust delivery of More I Cannot Wish You, very different from John Normington’s more sentimental delivery – I think I preferred Mr McCaul’s interpretation. And he gets a round of applause for his killer exit line. Very pleased to see him on stage again, I’ve not seen him since “Privates on Parade” in 1978. Nick Wilton (hilarious in the Menier’s Two into One earlier this year) is a wonderfully gruff gangster of a Harry The Horse, Nic Greenshields an amusingly imposing Big Jule, and the chorus ensemble are all just superb. As for the band, we had absolutely no choice but to stay behind to hear them finish their outro at the end of the show. Fantastic!

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it would be a travesty if this doesn’t transfer, but, there, I’ve said it. If you were lucky enough to get to see it – wasn’t it great? If you didn’t see it – I bet you’re kicking yourself now.

Review – Clybourne Park, Wyndham’s Theatre, London, April 30th 2011

Clybourne Park1959 – the trials of selling a house; 2009 – the trials of buying the same house; and the social repercussions of both. Bruce Norris’ smartly clever play is a delight and I’m guessing it’s challenging fun for the cast. Each cast member has two roles, one set in 1959, one in 2009 and it’s as pacey as it can be with characters required to talk over each other, no shying away from difficult subjects, lots of laugh-out-loud moments and some uncomfortable buttock shifting.

“Clybourne Park” is a new relative to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” with which I regret I am not familiar, so I can’t comment. The two plays share a character (structural similarities with “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” are noted in the programme), that of Karl, who wants to keep the neighbourhood white in Hansberry’s Play, and who in Clybourne Park is friends to Bev and Russ who are selling up and moving out, and has similar concerns.

You may well have heard that Clybourne Park is a play about racism, and it certainly is! But while taking nothing away from the impact that definitely has, its multi-layered characters additionally pose other interesting and difficult questions of how people from different backgrounds behave with each other. Yes there is neighbourhood-based racism courtesy of Karl who is aghast to discover the identities of the people moving into Clybourne Park. But other levels of insensitivity include a deaf character who is the unwitting subject of prejudicial language; and there is even the crass condescension of Bev to her daily help Francine, hectoring her to take possession of a useless kitchen implement that she doesn’t want, is far too difficult to pack, and is too good to throw away. Then we move to 2009, and people are much more enlightened. Aren’t they?

The play is at times hysterically funny – that kind of humour which catches in your mouth as you guffaw as you realise the awfulness of what you’re laughing at. Sometimes you sense a general unease in the audience at the non-politically-correct nature of some of the lines, where the laughter slowly gathers momentum like a Mexican Wave as you realise it’s acceptable to vocalise your amusement. But you’re embarrassed too.

Stephen Campbell Moore It’s a very clever play because it’s easy to make assumptions as to who is being racist or insensitive about whom and why, but life is rarely that straightforward, which makes the humour even more cringey. There’s a key segment in the second act when Steve, played by Stephen Campbell Moore blunders his way into an ill-advised joke-telling session where there’s no turning back. It’s all beautifully performed, and the social balance at the beginning of the conversation is shattered by the end of it. It’s very easy to see oneself somewhere in that situation, whether as the joke teller, the audience, the offended or the horrified onlooker. But it’s much more than a series of racially-challenged comments; it’s a very well constructed play which will challenge everyone, comparing attitudes fifty years apart, and with a hark-back to 1959 at the end, tying up the loose ends and satisfying in its completeness.

Sophie Thompson There are no obviously starry roles in the play and the whole cast turn in great performances, but especially memorable is Sophie Thompson’s 1959 Bev, the height of middle-class respectability and charitable to a point; I felt that, 20 years on, transplanted to London and a few gins later, she could turn into Mike Leigh’s Beverly from Abigail’s Party. Lorna Brown Lorna Brown’s sophisticated 2009 Lena subtly manipulates the whole of the second act from her central position and it’s a stunning performance, particularly in contrast with the uncomfortable Francine of the first act. Lucian Msamati I also really liked the willing but rather hapless 1959 Albert played by Lucian Msamati, doing his best to do the right thing under trying circumstances.

I’m very pleased we got to see this play before it closes but I find it impossible to think that Clybourne Park is going to go away so soon. It was a pretty much full house and is surely ripe for a tour. It’s got a lot to say and it does it extremely well!