Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – until 25 January 2019
The choice of the festive musical is a big one for many a venue, and they don’t come much bigger than Broadway classic Gypsy, which director Jo Davies has tackled for the Royal Exchange (returning to Manchester after a really rather excellent Twelfth Night). It also feels a bit of a bold choice given that the shadow of Imelda Staunton looms large for many, though that was over four years ago now. And if we consider Mama Rose to be the ne plus ultra of female MT roles, well you rarely hear people complaining about the endless succession of Hamlets and Lears, so it is more than time for a new Rose to bloom.
Davies gets a lot right, particularly in terms of her collaborators. Andrew Wright’s choreography makes considered use of the space, brilliantly exploiting the intimacy of being in the round (this is definitely a show to splash out on stalls seats for) as Leo Munby’s musical direction delivers a bright, if fairly traditional rendition of Jule Styne’s iconic score.
The bulb-bright flashes of Colin Grenfell’s lighting are showstoppingly effective throughout, particularly when allied with the mobile rig that dominates Francis O’Connor’s set. The sequence where ghosts of the past come to bear witness to a crucial decision by Rose is stunningly, hauntingly effective.
And onstage, there’s an embarrassment of riches tackling Arthur Laurents’ ferociously written book. Rebecca Thornhill, Suzie Chard and Kate O’Donnell are terrific as they deliver a hilariously rough-edged take on ‘You’ve Gotta Get A Gimmick’, Dale Rapley is dishy sweetness personified as the long-suffering Herbie and Louis Gaunt dances like a dream as ne’er-do-well Tulsa. Melissa James essays Louise’s transformative journey with real physical prowess too – she seriously seems to grow a foot in height as well as in confidence as she finally gets the chance to step into the limelight that has been so long denied to her, no matter the cost.
At the heart of it all, Ria Jones’ Mama Rose is an undeniably forceful presence. She’s nailed the bolshy, brassy tone that underscores her absolute determination to always get her way in both her acting and her singing and it works, to a degree, as she takes down all around her. The climactic breakdown of ‘Rose’s Turn’ doesn’t quite land with the hammer punch you’re anticipating though, this Rose doesn’t feel anywhere near breaking point and so the emotional force of the finale is missing – I wanted to be devastated goddammit! Still, it’s a strong production, though perhaps not the one to take your family to if you’re struggling to get on over Christmas!