Savoy Theatre – until 12 March 2016
(nb: Review from 4 January performance)
Days after any New Year hangover should have subsided, there’s a lack of energy at Guys and Dolls. The audience is unresponsive and while the cast certainly aren’t ‘phoning it in’ the connective spark isn’t arcing across the footlights. If they’re saving themselves for ‘proper’ press night and you read Charlie Spencer or Quentin Letts gushing over your egg and soldiers on Thursday morning that there were standing ovations, then the preview audiences have been short-changed for their £92 tickets.
For once, the book, music and lyrics can’t be blamed for any shortcomings: even though Bertie McKay, my English master at St Custard’s, used to refer to some popular fiction as ‘in a class below Damon Runyon’, Runyon‘s picaresque short stories of Broadway’s prohibition-era underbelly of gamblers and dance hall girls make great bones for musical stock.
The score by Frank Loesser ranks with the best of mid-century musical theatre with the big showstoppers heaven-sent for this talented male ensemble, the intertwined plots and love affairs keep us amused for two hours but resolve neatly only in the very final scene. Most of the cast came with the Chichester transfer and even the newcomers have had two weeks in Manchester, and four in London to play themselves in.
History-Boy-made-good Jamie Parker is beyond excellent, refining Sky Masterson with a crisp intelligence and occasional glimpses of hesitant motive and the inner workings of a genuinely three dimensional character that completely escaped Brando in the movie. He sings with strength, feeling and easy, elegant musicality: ‘My Time of Day’ and its segue into ‘I’ve Never Been in Love’ Before are undoubtedly the closing highlight of Act One.
David Haig is strange casting – replacing Peter Polycarpou as inveterate gambler and small time crook Nathan Detroit – but makes a surprisingly good fist of it for a man whose theatrical constituency seems closer to Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett. I’m a huge admirer of Sophie Thompson and really thought she, not big sis Emma, should have been Mrs Lovett in the ENO Sweeney Todd; but her chicken-legged version of long-term fiancée Miss Adelaide is so visibly a ‘turn’ and not a characterisation that you worry she’s detached from the rest of the story. She looks like Lucille Ball with rickets, and drops her jokes into a strange deep chest voice that isn’t funny and robs her of any vulnerability. Unfortunately also, she isn’t a natural dancer and is moved out of the way when the Hot Box Girls have to gyrate.
Much as I loved Siubhan Harrison in the under-valued From Here to Eternity she doesn’t feel right here. Her ‘Mission Doll’ Sarah is less a committed soapbox evangelist torn between love and duty, more a One Show presenter, and an unequal match to Parker’s complex, layered, enigmatic Sky.
The male chorus is universally excellent, although eight may not be enough to ‘fill’ the mission with sinners, but Gavin Spokes, who played the James Corden role in the National tour of One Man Two Guvnors, is terrific as Nicely-Nicely and brings the house down with ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’.
The trouble with any modern staging of Guys and Dolls is it must live in the shadow of the Richard Eyre National Theatre production of 1982 with its ‘dream team’ casting of Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins, Ian Charleson and Julie Covington. American director Gordon Greenberg may have tried to strike an original line, but succeeds best where he most closely copies the Eyre definitive. Forging a choreographic team between the brilliance of Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta ought to be sensational, but the sum isn’t as thrilling as those parts suggest – Acosta’s Havana bar scene is wiry and athletic, but also a bit over-worked and mechanical, and while most of Wright’s production numbers are also well-delivered, particularly ‘Luck Be a Lady’, the opening scene-setting ‘Runyonland’ is predictable and lacks the touch of magic he’s so often shown before.
A long tour lies ahead of the three-month stint at the Savoy and this may be a show to watch for covers and understudies – I’d love to see Cornelius Clarke step up as Nathan Detroit, and Genevieve Nicole, the tallest and fiercest of the Hot Box dancers, may not actually be buttering the steps from Sophie Thompson’s dressing room but definitely has her eyes on the prize of Adelaide.
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