Sunday, 2 November 2014

'Gypsy' at Chichester Festival Theatre

It should always be a bit of an event to go to the theatre, even more so when it's preceded by a 1.5 hours train journey to get to the town the theatre is in. The latest production at Chichester Festival Theatre is 'Gypsy', one of the big musicals, particularly when it stars Imelda Staunton and Kevin Whately.

I've only seen 'Gypsy' once before and that was on Broadway six years ago with Patti LuPone as Mama Rose. We saw it shortly after the opening night so it was still in the excited stage of the production before it settled down. The Chichester production has been on for a few weeks now so felt nicely established.

'Gypsy' is built around the legend of Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of burlesque. But it's not really about Gypsy at all, it's all about Rose, the driven show-biz mum who wants her daughters to become stars, first June and then Louise, and it's Louise who makes it as Gypsy. I remember not being too keen on the character of Rose when I first saw her in New York but Imelda brings a layer of humanity, of hope, to the role that makes the character more attractive (but still not terribly likeable). There's something about the three leads that makes this particular show a pleasure - they work well together. Rose, Herbie her agent and lover and elder daughter Louise, make a nice package.

Rose pushes her daughters around the vaudeville circuit of theatres in the hopes of striking it big and, as they age, she keeps the show the same, forcing them to be perpetual children. My favourite scene of the ensemble section is when we see the passing of the years happen in front of us with a strobe light on the players dancing as the children are replaced by adults. That's a great scene, and we're introduced to the young adults that grew out of those children.

Rose, of course, keeps pushing until Baby June elopes with one of the young men and after a brief moment of not knowing what to do, she instantly focuses her full attention on Louise who will now be the star. The drive and focus are quite frightening in a way and Imelda delivered a magnificent 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', throwing herself into the song and her acting credentials coming into play to make this a performance to remember. The intensity was astonishing as she stood tall and declared that she would not be beaten, even by her own daughter. This was a stunning end to the first half and had the audience clapping and hollering for more. And more was to come.

The second half introduces us to the troupe led by Louise, how she becomes Gypsy and how she loves every minute of her new life. From an accidental booking into a burlesque theatre Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the world famous stripper who keeps everyone guessing.

This all comes about when Rose overhears the theatre manager talking about a star spot for a stripper and she volunteers her daughter to take the place, arguing that they can then leave the burlesque with their heads high since they left as stars rather than as flops. This is a move too far for Herbie who leaves as he and Rose were due to be married and Louise becomes Gypsy. And Gypsy becomes a star. She has one of the best sequences from going on stage for the first time, nervous and unsure, to gradually gaining confidence and more sparkly frocks to eventually ruling the roost as a star. Lara Pulver was great as Louise, moving effortlessly from duckling to swan.

The final song is 'Rose's Turn' when Rose finally strides out on stage as herself, not living through her daughters, and belts out the song. It's easy to confuse what's going on in that song, most of which is happening in Rose's head but we're clapping away at the end as she takes her bows and then we realise she's bowing to an empty theatre, with Gypsy clapping from the wings. It's a powerful scene as mother and daughter reconcile themselves to each other - at least for the moment - and walk off stage arm in arm.

The cast were excellent, particularly Imelda Staunton who brought a hideous humanity to the driven character of Rose. She gave her all in her big songs and she gives trained singers a run for their money. Would I rather see Patti LuPone as Rose? No, give me Imelda any day! The sheer ferocity of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' was astonishing.

Kevin Whately was lovely as Herbie, the man who can be pushed and pushed but only pushed so far. I'm very familiar with Kevin on telly but have never seen him on stage before - he ought to do more live theatre. I also liked Lara Pulver as Gypsy bringing a nice charm to the role as she grows in confidence and seems to get taller (probably the shoes!) as well as more elegant. I loved the three strippers with a gimmick!

Well done to everyone involved in this production - it's a great show! It's only on for another week but here's hoping for a West End transfer. I think London is ready for Rose again.


thistlethorn said...

A friend of mine (we're from the States) flew over to see this production, and her impressions agreed with yours; she thought it was marvelous and was lucky enough to have gotten front row seats for two different performances. She said the post-show talk on the 30th was a delight. She was especially impressed with Kevin Whately and Imelda Staunton.

Owen said...

Thank you, it's a great show!