Guys and Dolls (Bridge Theatre) is a musical (described as a ‘musical fable of Broadway’), set during the Prohibition with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, based on two short stories by Damon Runyon. It premiered on Broadway in 1950 and since then has had several Broadway and London revivals, as well as a 1955 film adaptation. The 1996 revival of Richard Eyre’s multi-award-winning original show of 1982 was superb entertainment. However, this latest reimagining, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Christie Bunnie, takes it to another level; an immersive production that is so all-consuming for cast and audience that it becomes more of an experiential event than theatrical production. Being audacious is one thing, but pulling it off in this way is a triumph of imagination and execution. You have the option of standing or sitting (I did both to get both perspectives), which requires stamina and resilience for a two-and-three-quarter hour show. Then again, time flies when you’re having fun.
Musicals sell themselves on hit songs, sparkling choreography and visuals that will have you talking about the “wow factor”. Hytner’s production has all of that, but he also makes sure the narrative is cleverly and beautifully interwoven, so we are not just waiting for the next musical number. It burns slowly – we see a nervy Nathan Detroit trying to organise his latest “crap (dice) game” for all the big rollers who have hit town, including a very Big Jules from Chicago, looking for “action” – allowing the central characters to introduce themselves to us and their lives. So by the time we reach the end of the tale, we feel we know and understand how and why they got there. Christie meanwhile has created a set that at ground level looks like sectioned off spaces in a gym or dance studio, each area having a hydraulic life of its own, raising and lowering when becoming the performance spot. Simple and incredibly effective, around which stand some of the audience, moved into place by ushers dressed as New York cops. As a result you become part of it rather than just an enthusiastic and excitable voyeur.
Being up close and personal in that way requires top notch performances and the central characters are just that. Daniel Mays, a very familiar face on TV, is a hyper kinetic Detroit, flitting from one mini crisis to another trying to sort the game while also soothing and placating the love of his life Adelaide, not enamoured with his behaviour or reticence to marry him. Adelaide is played by Marisha Wallace and her portrayal is the strongest that I have seen, both vocally and in personality. No longer the succumbing and fragile Adelaide but a woman who knows her mind and will not take crap from anyone. Funny, vivacious and charismatic, her performance is unforgettable. In a similar vein Celinde Schoenmaker’s Sarah Brown is a woman of faith and fortitude, determined to ‘save’ the sinning reprobates (in her world the whole of this New York neighbourhood) until she is smitten by a new found love. An accomplished singer and actress her synergy with George Ioannides’ Sky Masterson is beautifully nuanced, simmering gently until reaching a furnace of passion when they fly off to Havana (a wager he is determined to win) for a highly imaginative and crazy scene, where he is even enticed into a gay club to dance with a handsome Cuban senor. Ioannides is bang on the money as Masterson, a very natural and likeable performer with an excellent voice and phlegmatic disposition perfectly pitched for Hytner’s tweaked, and lightly adapted production.
The whole company excel, and Loesser’s songs are pitch perfect in setting the scene while also providing memorable melodies. The duets, I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before between Sarah and Sky are gorgeous, Adelaide’s defiant Take Back Your Mink and the title song Guys and Dolls capture the two opposing but complimentary sides of the show. Which leaves us with a song that will go down in musical theatre history as one of the very best, the show-stopping Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat, when Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Cedric Neal) professes his strong religious belief (not). Neal is superb in the role and his rendition of the song is pulsates with ironic conviction, resulting in two encores. The expressive choreography by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins is brilliantly adapted to the tight spaces. As if all that’s not enough, after the ecstatic curtain call, and carrying the immersive feeling to the very end, you get a chance to dance with the cast. We may all be sinners, but this show will bring light and joy into tarnished lives and keep your boat rockin’ for some time.
A different type of performance was given by the spectacularly dressed Reuben Kaye with The Butch is Back(Southbank Centre). Irreverent and outrageous this was like a throwback to the heady days of UK drag comedy cabaret…Lily, Regina and many more. Boisterous Kaye is an Aussie which probably gives him more freedom to bash the Brits which he did with gay abandon. To begin with he was acerbic and witty with jokes about the Royals and Catholics. Then it got political and delightfully lewd perching himself on the laps of a few stunned people as he simulated sex acts. It was all very over the top, at times very familiar and not particularly original. It is his unpredictability which works best, and he is adept at improvising and dealing with unwanted banter. One over enthusiastic member of the audience had to suffer the ignominy of a Kaye put down as she tried to indulge in tit for tit catty dialogue. Kaye won nails down. It was an enjoyable show if a little hit and miss – the live band are excellent, the choice of songs not – and when he switched from comedy to messages of protest and defiance it was too much agitprop rather than comical agitation. Nevertheless, it was terrific alternative festive entertainment and most of the audience loved him.
Seasonal entertainment at The Barbican is always varied, offering up something for almost everyone and this year was no different. First up Marquinhos Havana… Christmas with King’s College Choir, joined on stage by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, was an evening of musical vignettes that delighted throughout. The programme included Bach (part of the Christmas Oratorio), Humperdinck (Hansel and Gretel Overture) and several traditional carols. However, the pieces that left an indelible mark on my musical psyche was their mellifluous yet pulsating performance of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from the Messiah and the absolutely euphonious version of O Holy Night.
Supported by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Hyde, live orchestral accompaniment makes an enormous difference, this was a concert to savour. I did, every single moment.
Martine Galogerino meanwhile is beholden to the work of a contemporary musical maestro. The Best of John Williams included pieces from several of his iconic film scores, music that you will hear people singing and humming in shopping malls and high streets all over the world. Can you blame them with so much choice. The London Concert Orchestra and their conductor Anthony Inglis played as though loving every minute of it. We had Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Hook and The Witches of Eastwick, all played with gusto and superb technique. But the two that struck home strongest on the emotional chord were Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the inimitable Star Wars. The atmosphere in the audience when the latter was being played was a thrill to experience. I could visualise Obi Wan-Kenobi, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and friends. Wonderful childhood memories. The best of the best.
Continuing my St John’s Smith Square odyssey I attended the Westminster Abbey Christmas Concert, part of the Christmas festival and what a joy the concert was. It took place at the Abbey which was a bonus (much as I like St John’s) and began as so many do with a lone voice in the darkness singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. At this point the Abbey Choir were situated in the Quire, adding to the drama of the occasion. Several readings and carols followed ending with the delightful Ding dong! merrily on high. Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, a piece for trebles and the harp, played beautifully by Sally Pryce, was outstanding. A wonderful event.
Finally, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and the choir Polyphony collaborated for an extraordinary performance of the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at St John’. It is a magnificent composition, but this was also a moving and ethereal experience as choir founder and conductor Stephen Layton breathed fresh life into a piece that has been heard by millions worldwide. The synergy between musicians and choir filled the beautiful Baroque church with a heavenly sound. The four soloists were high calibre singers, and I was particularly impressed by countertenor Hugh Cutting and tenor James Gilchrist. An appropriately festive ending for my first experience of the superb SJSS Christmas festival.
In 1964 Sir John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in Hamlet – Burton performed the role 137 times, breaking a record that Gielgud previously held himself. This is trivia – what The Motive and The Cue (Noel Coward Theatre) seeks to do is dig at the pathos behind the performance. Burton, an intense stage actor who had just rocketed to household notoriety thanks to marrying the mega-famous Elizabeth Taylor – directed by Gielgud – one of the original names in British theatre who saw cinema on the horizon and said ‘not for me, darling;’ his career, as a result, went kaput while his contemporary Laurence Olivier went supernova.
The tension, then, is what you might expect it to be; set-in-his ways thespian Gielgud against all the brooding method introspection that Burton can muster, Burton envious of Gielgud’s bona-fides, Gielgud resentful that he’s only eking out a career thanks to Burton’s charity – in its best moments the animosity between the two men dwarfs everything else on stage – the supporting characters are treated as an afterthought by the increasingly drunk Burton and ever-exasperated Gielgud. Performances are good: Mark Gatiss hits the laugh lines, but isn’t afraid to show real pathos, his monologue that closes out act one gives real gravity to one of the most overlooked soliloquies in Hamlet, often dismissed as too self-indulgent (it’s the one about acting, if that’s not obvious). Johnny Flynn does a note-perfect Burton, but compared to Gatiss feels maybe a touch too impression-y.
It is an interesting piece, certainly – but there are some sticking points that I was left with on my way out – a play about, as Taylor puts it, “A classicist wanting to be modern, and a modern wanting to be a classicist” is a premise for the ages, but 60 years on from Gielgud/Burton/Hamlet on broadway, it feels like too much of the London theatre scene still views people like Burton as an encroaching force rather than yesterday’s innovators – what does it say that Motive has been transplanted from its original home, the gorgeous brutalist Lyttelton Theatre to the luvvie’s mainstay, the Noel Coward Theatre?
Guys & Dolls – www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
The Barbican – www.barbican.org.uk
St John’s Smith Square – www.sjss.org.uk
The Motive’ The Cue – www.tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk