The week in theatre: five stars for Guys & Dolls, plus Marjorie Prime and The Tragedy of Macbeth – review
Not merely rocking the boat. Making it fly. Tickets for Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls will be the most sought after of the season. This 1950 musical (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) has everything. Dialogue and lyrics take off from Damon Runyon’s short stories, crackling and punching. The plot – hinging on collision and elision between card sharps and salvationists – is energetic, tender and shrewd. The musical numbers are nonstop sumptuous – in fact, such a glory roll that logjam can threaten: “showstopper” is not always a recommendation when the show must go on.
This staging never stops powering through. Fuelled by Bunny Christie’s design, Tom Brady’s musical supervision and choreography by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins, it swings up, down and sideways, enveloping the audience without ever dimming the dazzle of performance. In what is becoming a Bridge speciality, different scenes are staged on platforms that move around a standing audience of 420 (there are 600 sitting spectators). Paule Constable’s essential lighting and Christie’s design create a neonorama: scarlet caps and orange cursive, a luminous barber pole, a bendy, lime-green arrow. The Hot Box cabaret rises and sinks; across the way, Mindy’s deli glides into view; steam puffs up from the manhole through which gamblers slip into the sewers.
This is immersive theatre with real point. It is not only that you gain new thrills, see new jokes from being close to the action. This is an all-out urban story: it should never freeze into set pieces; it needs city jostle and faces from the street. Here the audience are a further backdrop to the scudding scenes. Yet the actors are always distinct. Dishily so. Costumes, by Christie and Deborah Andrews, are a jazz of berets and homburgs, big checked jackets and bum-grazing tinsel skirts, corsets trimmed with pink feathers.
And, oh, the thrill of choreography that is exact, from the tipping of a cap to the toe of a co-respondent shoe; which whisks across small spaces without seeming cramped, and has more flare than flounce, more expression than attitude. And plenty of spicy innovation: the Havana dance sequence is performed by male couples: our hero has to be prised away from a clingily clad chap; a dirty grind cabaret number is ingenious with carrots.
Marjorie Prime is set in a near future in which having an iPhone is a sign of being ancient
It is an evening of beautiful sweep, not dependent on stars. Still, the leads are terrific. Daniel Mays brings a particular mix of shiftiness and amiability to Nathan Detroit. Andrew Richardson has a lolloping ease as cool Sky, seeming to lounge into luck and song. As Miss Adelaide (surely the only heroine who has ever sung about having a cold), Marisha Wallace makes the stage tremble with delight, as she did in the Young Vic’s Oklahoma! Playing the upright Sarah Brown, Celinde Schoenmaker soars, melts and spectacularly unravels, button by button: never has the missionary position been so captivating. The musical high spots go beyond rousing and beguiling. In the course of Sky and Sarah’s falling-in-love duets, their voices shift to make a new blend of sound, a new start. Sarah and Adelaide’s sceptical but fond Marry the Man Today suggests that this musical could also be called Dolls & Guys.
Something happens in Nancy Carroll’s face that I have not seen before. It seems to melt, to lose definition: to move gradually but irrevocably from sceptical poise to an anxious blur. It would almost be worth going to see Marjorie Prime for that alone. Or for the way Anne Reid, playing Carroll’s implacable mother, fastens a broad smile on to her features and leaves you guessing how much it expresses anything she might feel.
Dominic Dromgoole’s elegant new production, which also has able performances by Tony Jayawardena and Richard Fleeshman, makes something gently probing from Jordan Harrison’s play. Slightly against the odds. Set in a near future in which having an iPhone is a sign of being ancient, the plot turns on the idea of creating avatars that, when fed with real human memories, will be able to replicate the dead, offering comfort to the bereaved.
It was first staged in LA in 2014, and Harrison deserves applause for prescience. There are neat turns on the question of what counts as recognisable personal information: such as thinking that the only scent a woman needs is fabric softener. Interesting dilemmas about identity are raised: how much can you forget and still be yourself? How much of someone else’s memories can you store without becoming that person? Yet though enhanced by Jonathan Fensom’s clever design, in which blue skies turn to fathomless constellations, the action intrigues rather than involves, unfolding skilfully but mechanically. Gifted actors suggest another layer: how does an audience distinguish between human beings and copycat bots?
Flabbergast Theatre company is well named. They aim to quake an audience. The troupe’s rapid, snapping version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed and designed by founder Henry Maynard, is driven by the witches, who too often get short shrift in contemporary productions. These weird sisters morph into other characters. Beating on enormous drums, they deliver the pulse of the action.
In true magic style, characters and objects become grotesquely, sometimes comically indistinct. Watching the action unfold is like seeing an object take shape and disintegrate on a potter’s wheel. Everything on stage is the colour of pale mud: the backdrop of dun tarpaulins, rough, flapping costumes, smeared faces. Movement direction by Matej Majeka gets the actors processing slowly, as if walking through quicksand, or gesturing rigidly like creatures in a frieze. The Porter, that usually dreaded unfunny interlude, is a modern clown: moving fluidly, squeaky voiced, only occasionally erupting into recognisable words. He is the shade of earth, barely clad. He could be Poor Tom escaped from King Lear.
First seen at Edinburgh last summer, the effect can be more strenuous than explosive, and always more visual than verbal. Speeches are belted out, as if from a hectic unconscious: exclamatory, sometimes (I was at a preview) unclear, and not much varied in intensity, though multitasking Maynard delivers “tomorrow and tomorrow” with resonant slowness, suggesting time had really begun to creep. Still, the imaginative rethinking is striking, not least in Adam Clifford’s musical arrangements, which meld Japanese taiko and English folk song. The evening ends with a memorable chorus of Three Ravens. Those witches can turn into anything.
Star ratings (out of five)
Guys & Dolls ★★★★★
Marjorie Prime ★★★
The Tragedy of Macbeth ★★★