Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 8 April 2017
‘Waiter, have you got frog’s legs?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Well hop over the counter and fetch me a bacon sandwich …’ – is about the only old joke not shoehorned by Nathan Lane into his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove’s musical The Frogs derived from an Aristophanes tale which won the Lenaia, a sort of early Eurovision Song Contest, in 405BC.
It’s obscure, and it’s too long and the music includes the bits left under Richard Rodgers’ piano once they gathered up the final score of Do I Hear a Waltz and resurfaces in the less stagey parts of Sondheim’s later canon like Merrily We Roll Along, Assassins and Sunday in the Park with George.
But – Grace Wessels’ production is as neatly-painted as a cameo, suitably fitting the velvet box lining of Jermyn Street theatre. It has charm and energy and in Gregor Donnelly‘s black-and-warm-coppery décor not a little style too.
It’s very hard to see anything which burlesques the ancient classics other than through the lens of Frankie Howerd, so the Lurcio character if you like is Michael Matus playing Dionysus, God of the theatre. He thinks it might be a wheeze to visit the Underworld disguised as a rather butcher God called Herakles in order to retrieve from Hades George Bernard Shaw whom he thinks can save the world with his socialist schtick.
If there was a political point back in 1974, or now given what’s happening in the White House, it escapes this rather sweet chamber version which doesn’t point any fingers.
The topical opener deriding audience behaviour aside, two setpiece scenes are the highlights: the journey across the Styx in company of Matus’ droll Scots sidekick slave George Rae and a ritually stoned Charon when the boat is besieged by the Frogs with their alliterative chorus of ‘Brek-kek-kek-kek!’ and some crisply-directed movement. It’s very involving, but during the interval you might wonder why anyone should be so frightened of the little green amphibians, it’s not explained in the piece.
The second great scene is a poetry slam between Shakespeare and Shaw vying for a return to Earth – it’s well handled by Martin Dickinson and Nigel Pilkington although unclear why Bill Shakespeare isn’t a Brummie and Shaw has neither a beard nor a Dublin accent. Perhaps this is part of the condensation of the show from 28 characters to a cast of nine. They work hard, but the audience has to work hard too.
The production is sold out for the run, so perhaps reviews and star ratings are superfluous. I’d never seen The Frogs before and while I enjoyed it out of sheer theatrical curiosity, it remains a mystery why aficionados believe it illustrates Sondheim’s genius, or what in God’s name it must have been like before Nathan Lane ‘improved’ it.