Bridge Theatre, London – until 2 September 2023
Daniel Mays has played a lot of tough-guy roles but has by nature a rather innocent and worried-looking face. It is this quality that Nicholas Hytner spotted as perfect for his Nathan Detroit: lowlife but hapless, indecisive about the faff and cost of marrying his tolerant fiancee of 14 years standing, Miss Adelaide (an irresistible Marisha Wallace). Perfect too is the exasperated but unbreakable chemistry between them: the Benedick and Beatrice of the Damon Runyon 1920s-30s world that Frank Loesser, Swerling and Burrows created.
Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) is a more suave leading-man part, though he’s deft at acrobatic comic chaos when Sarah the Salvationist falls for his charms and a Bacardi-laced milkshake in a Havana nightclub punch-up (look, she had every reason to call time on his homoerotic dance with the chap in orange shorts). Both pairs are a treat, anyway, Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah also deploys, for a glorious soprano, a fine acrobatic recklessness.
Anyway, tip your hat and get down there, spend your winnings. It’s comic perfection, sly wit and timing, gently endearing performances, rumbustious knock ‘em dead choreography in both raunchy and hilarious modes. And of course flawless musical numbers – I had forgotten that alongside great barnstormers like ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ and wicked comedy like Adelaide’s lament over the psychology manual, there are exquisite lyrical numbers: not least ‘More I Cannot Wish You’, gorgeously sung by Anthony O’Donnell’s Arvide.
But there’s something else: from the immersed surge of prommers on the floor to the crowded galleries above, the comments as we all raced for the last tubes before the strike were also about the staging: Hytner directing another bravura circus-mood splash from the matchlessly flexible Bridge. As in Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, promenaders can opt for the floor and be immersive – some went the full Damon Runyon 1920s cosplay, girls in cocktail kit and men made hat-brim debonair by the theatre’s artful sale of pork pie hats in the melee before the start.
So to add to the basic pleasure of a perfectly executed musical, you get Bunny Christie creating the dream New York of old movies, with rising blocks creating multiple stages and a cast flawlessly choreographed to be in the right place at 30 seconds’ notice, running from the cops, marching behind the Salvationist drum, appearing in a suddenly illuminated dive or emerging, hat by trilby hat, from the manhole after the sewer scene.
Almost invisible stage crew move the audience crowds safely around , streets and sidewalks rise and fall and divide: abruptly there could be a boxing ring, a cabaret, a bar, a roadworks… everything everywhere all at once. Sudden landmarks appear: where did those Cuban lampposts come from, never saw them arrive? and hang on, that chimney, smoking… if wobbling… and how the hell did the mission hall which wasn’t there a few seconds ago grow six rows of wooden chairs? And hell, the Havana moment, sparkles and feathers and flesh everywhere, what happened to New York?
It would be a lovingly told tale and beautifully sung without any of this bravura, but we need dazzle too: life isn’t all Ibsen and Hare. And I am happy to report that the stage crew got their own curtain call on another rising block. We all cheered. They get the rare stagecrew-mouse as an extra.
Bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 2 September
And here’s the stage management mouse.