Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 8 April 2017
Here’s the god Dionysius, deprived of his Noel-Coward smoking jacket and unconvincingly disguised as Heracles in a lion skin. He’s having a panic attack on a ferry across the Styx while a chorus of marauding frogs sings a menacing staccato and Charon the ferryman sleeps off a spliff. The frogs represent apathetic conformity – “Brek-kek-kek-kek! Brek-kek-kek-kek Whaddya care the world’s a wreck? Leave ’em alone, send ’em a check, Sit in the sun and what the heck?”. But as the God of theatre our hero is on a quest to bring back a great playwright – George Bernard Shaw of all people – to improve the world with questioning.
There are many fingers in this mad frog pie. Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek playwright who wrote, for the feast of Lenaia, about a journey into Hades to bring back the dead Euripides. Then Burt Shevelove who updated it to include SHAW and Shakespeare in debate, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the music and lyrics, and had it performed in the unfriendly acoustic of the Yale swimming pool. Now add Nathan Lane, who fell for it as if for “a little homely rescue dog”, messed about and wrote new bits. And here it is at the ever-adventurous Jermyn.
Rarely have I been in a more Marmite show. A couple left furiously at the interval, not getting it at all: another woman rhapsodised in the interval expressing surprise that they didn’t adore it like her, then unaccountably picked up her many bags and left ten minutes in making the rest of the row stand up for her. Me, entrancedly amused mainly by the Sondheim lyrics, I stayed and enjoyed the character of Pluto the underworld king as a leather queen with a whip, the assorted choruses, and the very funny advent of Martin DIckinson as George Bernard Shaw himself, pompous , emitting his famous epigrams and excoriating the frivolity of Shakespeare and his ‘Purple patches on borrowed rags”,.
Dionysius holds it together, the affable Michael Matus alternately alarmed, determined, and nicely gushy as the top Shaw fanboy, praising his “gravity of subject and levity of manner” , which actually describes this whole show quite nicely. The duel of quotations between Shaw and Shakespeare is wonderful, with quite the right winner.
So I enjoyed it, crazy as it is, and the music – piano, woodwind, trumpet and cello, is beautifully Sondheim, and Anthony Biggs, soon to leave this lovely little theatre, directs with cheerful speed. It feels more like a clever college romp than anything else, but it is a romp composed by a genius, an eloquent wise clown. For Sondheimites, it has the buzz. Or croak.