Sunday, 31 August 2014

'Guys And Dolls' - Chichester Festival Theatre

On Saturday Chris took me down to the Chichester Festival Theatre to see the matinee of the new production of 'Guys and Dolls'. 'Guys and Dolls' holds a special place in the theatre pantheon since the 1982 production at the National Theatre is what got Chris into theatre in a big way. Some things matter.

It takes an hour and a half heading south by train from London to reach Chichester, trundling through Surrey and into the Sussex countryside with cows and sheep - yes, real wild animals! Luckily they only attack at night so we were safe.

Anyway, there we were, waiting to be wowed or saddened and I was much heartened by the first glimpses of the staging with a semi-cicle of advertising posters gracing the stage like it was Times Square. I liked it. I liked it even more when the lights surrounding each poster flashed on like Broadway signs. That was truly spectacular with the reflection on the shiny back stage creating a great effect. The action all took place with minimal sets under that great backdrop and it was very effective. The energetic cast kept the pace fast and tight, jumping and dancing all over the place (including the bicycling nun collecting money) creating a picture of the big city, vibrant and full of life and danger.

It's a love story, of course, bit it's not straightforward at all (is it ever?). We have Nathan Detroit, a rogue setting up an illegal crap game, and Miss Adelaide, an aging chanteuse who is a star at the Hot Box club. They've been engaged for 14 years and that sort of says it all. On the other hand we have Sergeant Sarah Brown, leader of the Times Square branch of the Salvation Army, and Sky Masterson, a gambler supreme in New York for a few days who accepts a bet from Nathan that he can't get Sarah to have dinner with him in Havanna, Cuba. Of course, that's where it all goes wrong because they fall in love.

We see Nathan trying to set up his dice game and keeping away from the police and Sky trying his wiles on Sarah. Sky succeeds by guaranteeing twelve sinners will attend her midnight meeting the following day. One complication after another ensues, along with broken promises and love-lorn moments before all comes well in the end - with a few twists in the tail, naturally. One of the funniest moments of all was when Miss Adelaide curses Nathan because, for once, he actually tells the truth!

Was it worth the treck out into the countryside? You betcha! I loved it and even bought a programme. I saw the 2005 revival that was really a star vehicle for Ewan McGregor but this far surpassed that version and I finally saw the underlying joy and life in the show. There are laughs a plenty and great songs and a story that just works.

There are four equal leads in this show and you need all the pieces in the right proportions. Peter Polycarpou and Sophie Thompson played the older lovers of Nathan and Miss Adelaide and Jamie Parker and Clare Foster as the young lovers Sky and Sarah. I've seen all of them on stage before - other than Jamie - and I have to say it's the older lovers who won the awards for best performances. I quite liked Jamie but Clare doesn't quite seem to have found her character yet. Jamie really killed it with 'Luck Be A Lady' when he was playing for souls, his own as Sky included.

Clare came fully to life for her song with Miss Adelaide, the fun 'Marry The Man Today' and change him tomorrow rather than worrying about it today. That's the penultimate song of the show and gives the female characters another chance to shine  and shine they did, climbing up on the chairs and giving it some big wow as well as laughs, with Sophie slowly prowling the stage.

Peter and Sophie played off each other like old pros and Sophie in particular milked every situation and line for the laughs, sometimes just by lowering her voice on the right line. That was a masterclass in comedic acting. It was definitely Sophie and Peter's show and that's how I'll remember it, those two showing us how it's done!

I've already said that the set was excellent, very evocative, flexible and impressive. And so was the lighting and costumes - and so many costumes! I loved the suits of the gamblers, all colourful but not garish and I'd wear them (if I wore suits). The backdrop and the lighting totally changed the mood whenever needed without any overt change, just a subtle switch of the light to change the mood, bathe the stage in a different light and, hey presto, a new set!  It was really clever and simple. And, more importantly, it worked.

D'you know what I want? I want to see this production again. I now *get* 'Guys And Dolls' and want to *get* it again. I want to see Sophie Thompson and Peter Polycarpou and want to see Clare Foster (who I loved in 'Crazy For You') to grow into her role. And I want to see Jamie as Sky punch Big Julie.  Yes. This show needs to transfer to the West End. Make it so, please.

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