Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 13th March, 2012
Paul Kerryson’s revival of the Jule Styne/Arthur Laurents 1959 musical continues the run of superb productions at this remarkable venue. With a strong cast and production values to rival any West End production, this is a powerful show, relentless as its central character.
And what a central character! Ostensibly this is a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated clothing remover, but the action is dominated by the pushiest of pushy stage mothers, Rose (a barnstorming Caroline O’Connor). Rose is an absolute monster, infantilising her daughters in order to keep their tired Vaudeville act doing the rounds, year after year. The young Baby June (played in the show I saw by nine-year-old Hannah Everest) gives a truly nauseating performance, all squeals, splits and baton twirling. I believe we are intended to view the cutesiness from outside and recognise the awfulness of the act. Performers and director keep this distinction clearly drawn: the difference between when the characters are singing as themselves and when they are ‘performing’ their act.
There is a very effective transition from young to older cast achieved through the simple application of a strobe light. Indeed, apart from using back-projections of period newspaper advertisements, blown up huge as ironic counterpoints to the action, this is a very traditional staging, allowing the strength of the story and the performers to shine.
Caroline O’Connor largely makes the part her own although the ghost of Ethel Merman is never far away from her vowel sounds. The monstrousness of Rose, her ambition fuelled by delusion and driven by a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome is her tragic flaw. When meal ticket Baby June elopes with one of the overgrown chorus boys, everyone thinks that’s the end of the act. But not Rose. She turns to neglected and overlooked daughter Louise (Victoria Hamilton-Barrit) and instantly forms a plan to remake the act with her as the star. Heard in context, classic song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is chilling in its intensity. At the end, Rose storms the stage in a kind of musical breakdown but by the end of the number she has composed herself and is back the same as she always was. It is not like she hasn’t learned anything but she chooses to ignore it and wilfully puts her blinkers back on.
Louise, desperate for affection, attention and keen to please, winds up as a tentative stripper in a burlesque theatre. She subverts her sister’s signature song, “Let Me Entertain You” wringing out the double entendres of Sondheim’s lyrics. She soon takes to stripping like a duck to plucking and becomes rich and famous in no time. Standing up to her mother at last, she shows us how far she has come. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit gives the strongest performance of the lot, from boyish teenager, self-effacing and kind, to the assured and exotic mature woman she becomes, still generous enough in spirit to humour and forgive her overbearing mother.
It’s a dark story, leavened with humour and heart. The supporting players are all very good. The trio of strippers almost steal the show with their number, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (which contains the marvellous Stephen Sondheim lyric – If you want to bump it, bump it with a trumpet). The quality of the production never falters. I hope this Gypsy, like other Curve productions before it, will take to the road.