GUYS AND DOLLS
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th November, 2015
Frank Loesser’s classic musical comes to Birmingham prior to its residency in the West End in this new production by Chichester Festival Theatre. And it’s a safe bet for high quality entertainment. Based on the stories of Damon Runyon (think PG Wodehouse of the New York underworld) it’s a slight, light-hearted tale in which the protagonists are on the wrong side of the law, workshy, inveterate gamblers – perhaps that’s why we like them so much. Nathan Detroit (David Haig) is desperately seeking a venue for a craps game, meanwhile fending off the ire of his long-term fiancée, showgirl Adelaide (Sophie Thompson). To raise capital, he bets gambler par excellence Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) that he can’t persuade Salvation Army-type Sarah Brown (Siubhan Harrison) out on a date… And so the scene is set for a charming story, peppered with great songs – the tunes keep coming: some have become standards.
As Nathan, David Haig perhaps surprises with the lightness of his comic touch – we are more accustomed to him in dramatic roles, but he captures Detroit’s twinkle. Jamie Parker’s Sky is brash but seductive; we see the gambler struggle with unfamiliar emotions as he finds himself falling for the staid Sarah Brown – appealingly played by Siubhan Harrison. Their night-out in a Havana club descends into a drunken brawl. The journey of these characters is subtly but clearly portrayed, giving them credibility in this rarefied musical theatre world. But the night belongs to Sophie Thompson’s Adelaide, in a powerhouse performance in which she channels a little of Marilyn Monroe and a lot of Lucille Ball to present us with a rounded characterisation that is comic, touching and endearing at the drop of a mink stole.
The four leads are supported by an excellent chorus and ensemble, fleshed out by a wealth of minor characters. The comic timing is spot on. Stand-outs are Ian Hughes as Benny Sidestreet and Nic Greenshields towering over proceedings as cheating heavy Big Jule. Gavin Spokes stops the show with his Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat – his Nicely-Nicely Johnson is both detailed and broad, epitomising the production as a whole. With deft strokes, director Gordon Greenberg creates the world of the show, using Peter McKintosh’s emblematic set to keep the action fluid and scene transitions slick, allowing the cast to flesh out the characters who populate the story – they wear their humanity as obvious as the checks on their colourful suits. Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright fill the space with energetic choreography, evoking period without being clichéd – the Havana sequence, including the brawl, is a definite highlight.
It’s a feel-good musical, seemingly effortless in its execution; Detroit and Masterson mend their ways in order to please their ‘dolls’ but the wry humour of the book (by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) suggests that Detroit, at least, is not completely rehabilitated. It’s a show that celebrates human flaws and foibles in a production that delivers the highest standards of the performing arts.
Often, booking a ticket to see live theatre can be something of a gamble. Not in this case. A great night out is guaranteed. It’s as though the dice are loaded in the audience’s favour.