‘Full of fun but also astringently bracing & darkly sexy’: OKLAHOMA! – Young Vic Theatre ★★★★

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Young Vic Theatre, London – until 25 June 2022

Traditionally, audiences don’t go to Oklahoma! to be unsettled. On the other hand you don’t go to the Young Vic to have your expectations cosily met by a singalong, with the dark bits tastefully brushed over. This Broadway production, stripped down and serious, is full of fun but also astringently bracing and darkly sexy. We are on three sides of a hall, wood from floor to roof: a great tan background sketches the wide open spaces. The front rows sit at long tables with crockpots and beer cans, around which chaps in chaps will soon be stamping, and ra-ra skirts flouncing above your head. The small, club-scale band plucks and tunes at one end. All round the gallery walls are racks of rifles, a hundred of them, again on the pale tan wooden walls. At first it feels like sitting inside a giant IKEA wardrobe.

But the cast are freed, wild. They approach the numbers as if they, and we, had never heard them before, with many opportunities for percussive thigh-banging and stamping. The story is taken as dangerously as any modem noir. Marisha Wallace’s Ado Annie is very funny, getting gales of laughter, but when the girl who cain’t say no confronts the chilly, virginally uncertain Laurey close up there is a real frisson of hostile mockery.

As for Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, reprising his Broadway role), his troubling story is often hurried through as a joke in cosier productions, but this Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein production throws everything at it – a full blackout with the sound of Curly’s nasty baiting contempt, then an onstage-camera projection of the victim’s huge troubled face on the backdrop. Jud’s  own words about solitude and needing a woman have pathos, but make him disconcertingly a clear forerunner and exemplar of every lone sex killer in the news. It always was a weird, uncomfortable bit of the show and this production majors on it.

Still, most of the long first half is a riot, the small cast vigorous and rackety and real: Anoushka Lucas sings marvellously as Lauren, and Arthur Darvill is a heartbreaker; grounded by Aunt Eller (a magnificently tart Liza Sadovy with beautiful timing), the young lark beautifully. And it is always a pleasure to see the perennially terrifying Greg Hicks scowling with a shotgun on his lap and menacing poor Will.

The second half opens with the dream ballet putting an even stronger emphasis on the sexual dilemma as an alt-Laurey in a shimmering short tunic – Marie Mence – dances with acrobatic, liberated, cartwheeling erotic frenzy in a cloud of smoke, freed in dreams (not least, we are thinking by now, by the menacing lust of the alarming Jud).

The hoedown at the box-social is of course rumbustious, but for some reason there is a real deceleration in the show’s pace, some too-long significant plonking dramatic silences. The bidding scene is tense, and heavy in its suggestion of it being totally a sexual auction. The light relief of the pedlar and will with Ado Annie  is all the fun it should be and fun and the front row (especially men) get a great deal of attention.

But the last thing I had expected of such a vigorous production is the feeling that grew that it is, to be honest, too long.   Dramatic pauses fail to hold.  When it reaches, after nearly three hours, the big Oklahoma number we still have the even more problematic fate of Jud to face.  Which  is not the self-defence killing of the original but,  with Jud’s new gentleness,   Curley’s shot,  and the community’s  hastily fudged acquittal,  it feels almost like  a statement about America’s pioneer greatness being based  on gun power, dodgy legality, and being no place for durned outsiders who don’t know their place.

Www.youngvic.org.        To 25 June

Rating four .

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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