Kilworth House, Leicestershire – until 8 July 2018
Not since 1982 at the National Theatre have the opening bars of Runyonland (the preamble/overture to Guys and Dolls) generated such a tingle of excitement as Philip Witcomb’s set design, built within Kilworth House’s ingeniously covered open-air space, captures the essence of New York complete with billboards, steam, and a glimpse of the Manhattan Bridge.
Guys and Dolls was described by Kenneth Tynan as “the second greatest American play after Death of a Salesman”. He’s not wrong for the show is surely the most sparkling study on the human condition that has ever been set to song. The enduring love between Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide is as gritty, real and recognisable as it is hilarious – while the romance that evolves between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown is straight out of an everyday fairytale.
The tunes and lyrics are both Broadway and Frank Loesser’s finest. For the show to soar, all that is needed is a faultless cast – thus the greatest plaudits in this production belong to director/choreographer Nick Winston and his casting director Anne Vosser for having assembled some of the nation’s finest musical theatre talent to create this sensational revival.
Daniel Robinson and Holly Dale Spencer are the interminably engaged Nathan and Adelaide and if there is one (tiny) niggle, it is the inconsistency of their New York accents. Spencer pronounces person as “poysson” perfectly, whereas Robinson’s American twang is just a bit too mild and preppy. But ’tis a minor flaw – because the chemistry between the pair, along with their solo energies too, is just non-stop pleasure, delivered with pinpoint timing.
The “blossom time” scene, as Adelaide inadvertently interrupts the hoodlums assembling for their floating crap game is, in 10 seconds of exquisite drama, perhaps the finest example of musical theatre comedy to be found today.
Nathan Detroit as a role doesn’t demand vocal perfection – but it does require presence and nuance in spades and Robinson’s diminutive features see him rise to the challenge magnificently. Holly Dale Spencer however is a vocal powerhouse of raucous, raunchy excellence, Her Hot Box routines emphasising that venue’s sleazy burlesque in a way that few other productions have dared to portray so honestly.
As Sarah, Harriet Jones brings a soprano strength to the role that has rarely if ever been heard. In I’ll Know, her first duet with Sky, she takes the roof (OK, the canvas awning) off of Kilworth House leaving this reviewer stunned in his seat. Jones sings with a power and perfection that makes spines tingle. Opposite her, Simon Thomas’ Sky Masterson is another delight. Authoritative, persistent and yet vulnerable, Thomas’ chiselled looks and majestic voice define this ultimate gambler. And as for the chemistry ( yeah, chemistry, again) betwixt him and Jones, its flawless!
The supporting guys and dolls are equally entertaining. Adam Venus’ Benny Southstreet is a neat turn, while the crackingly corpulent Daniel Stockton makes fine, full work of Sit Dpwn, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, stopping the show wonderfully in act two and arguably, well worthy of a mid-show encore too . Martin Neely’s Brannigan breathes life into the tiniest of roles, while Graham Hoadly’s Arvide Abernathy is a masterclass in avuncularity. Hoadly’s take on More I Cannot Wish You, again, another tiny song in the show, is similarly perhaps the best ever. A nod too for Will Kenning’s Big Jule who manages a marvellous mix of menace and mirth and for NeilMacDonald’s 12 piece band, tucked away in their off-stage marquee, who make fine work of the timeless score.
It is also the inspired little touches that make this such a standout production. In what could be a nod to Follies, Winston has his mink-laden Hot Box Girls enter down staircases for their second act opener; Chris Whybrow’s sound design doesn’t just subtly overlay New York traffic sounds but in the romantic Cuban moments, listen carefully to waves lapping on the shore; and as Sarah and Adelaide rue the men in their lives with Marry the Man Today, we see the typically sober sergeant pull a bottle of Bacardi from her handbag. Genius!
Only on at Kilworth House for two more weeks – this is a truly fabulous fable.