The week in theatre: Guys and Dolls; Snowflake; The Wizard of Oz – review

Even in our disputatious world, most people can probably agree that 2019 has been a bumpy ride. Is anyone offering odds on 2020 being better? If they are, that’s not a bet I’d care to make. I am, however, prepared to lay 5-9 that Sheffield Crucible’s new production of Guys and Dolls will go down as a classic of its kind. Directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Robert Hastie, with new musical arrangements by Will Stuart and choreography by Matt Flint, this is a near-perfect presentation of the 1950 show that has been described as the “perfect musical comedy”, its winning combination being the stories of Damon Runyon, translated to stage by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling combined, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

The action is located at a crossroads between vice and virtue. Janet Bird’s scaffold-style, mobile set evokes the sharp angles and fast pace of 1920s and 30s Broadway, where Martin Marquez’s fretting, furrow-browed, “no-good nick”, Nathan Detroit, is desperately seeking a venue for an illegal dice game. Meanwhile, nightclub singer Miss Adelaide longs for Nathan, her fiance of 14 years, to stop “stalling and stalling the wedding trip” and so cure her psychosomatic cold and “grippe”. Natalie Casey is a priceless Adelaide, switchbacking between pouting vamp and hilariously demented gerbil. Sister Sarah of the Save-a-Soul Mission walks the streets, looking for souls to save so as to save her mission. Alex Young’s Sarah has a sideways slide of the eye that suggests her laces are not as strait as might be supposed – an impression confirmed when she is introduced to Cuba, rum and fun by Kadiff Kirwan’s super-cool Sky Masterson, the gambler who, by winning a bet, loses his heart.

These four may lead the action, but in Hastie’s 22-strong cast there are no minor performances. Every character is a major player, and when they all come together in the big numbers – especially a brilliantly reworked Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, led by TJ Lloyd’s very, very Nicely Nicely Johnson – the effect is devilishly heavenly.

By contrast, Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake, first performed last year, is something of a downer. The entire first half is taken up by a lengthy, expository monologue. We are in Oxfordshire in 2019 (the script has been updated). Andy is rehearsing a reunion with his daughter Maya who, having left home abruptly in 2016, three years after her mother’s death, has not been in contact since. Andy has reason to hope she might be back for Christmas, and has hired and decorated the village hall to welcome her. Elliot Levey’s performance is well-paced and vivid, but I still felt I was watching a mashup of standup comedy, radio drama and creative-writing exercise, with plot points wedged into riffs on Andy’s Victor Meldrew-ish views: on dating, customer service, his colleagues at the museum where he works, and on the younger generation’s snowflake attitudes.

Andy’s flow is interrupted by the surprise arrival of 25-year-old Natalie, a stranger who seems, initially, similarly verbose and opinionated. The two trade oppositional statements – no prizes, for instance, for guessing who is where on Brexit. The dialogue sparkles but the situation is static (as is Clare Lizzimore’s direction). When Natalie discovers that Andy is a fan of James Bond and The X-Files, she accuses him of sexism and racism. His defence is that these stories are “of their time”.

Bartlett’s dramaturgy appears to be rooted in similarly outdated attitudes. For too much of the second half, Natalie’s gender, sexuality and race seem relevant only as points of contrast with the white, middle-aged, middle-class male, around whom the play revolves – a note in the script even indicates that Natalie can be “black or mixed race”, as if these were interchangeable, co-equivalent identities. Fortunately, Amber James’s thoroughly intelligent performance imbues the character with depth, conveying an impression that Natalie thinks and feels much more than she lets on, as when she counters Andy’s “All fathers love their daughters” with “Actually, a vast lot don’t”.

We are more than halfway through the evening before the writing lets the characters grow into something more than mouthpieces. Natalie pushes Andy to recall the events leading up to Maya’s sudden departure. Fastening on to an argument, she forces him to the realisation that differences of opinion were not, and are not, the prime issue. A dismissive and disrespectful manner causes more pain than a disagreement. The drama gels as dynamic tensions come into play. Do beliefs shape behaviours? Can either be changed? Are self-recognition and reconciliation possible?

With the introduction of another surprise (no spoilers), the action really gets going – but too late! The end is nigh. Bartlett steers us to a suitably Christmassy, tear-inducing conclusion, but I was left feeling cheated of the powerful play that might have been if he had treated his characters as people rather than constructs.

Another story based on intergenerational conflict and notions of home, and in which snowflakes (real or imagined) determine the course of the action, has become a firm Christmas favourite. Originally a book, then a film and finally a stage musical, L Frank Baum’s story of The Wizard of Oz, about the little girl from Kansas whisked by a hurricane to a magical land, has been delighting readers, viewers and audiences for more than a century. Leeds Playhouse’s new production, directed by James Brining, designed by Simon Higlett, with video contributions from Simon Wainwright, does not disappoint.

Agatha Meehan is an ideal Dorothy (she alternates the role with Lucy Sherman), satisfying expectations set by the 1939 MGM extravaganza while stamping her own identity on the part. She is not alone in this. All the other actors give individual interpretations without departing from the much-loved models; in this they are vastly assisted by Lucy Cullingford’s excellent choreography, and by music under Tamara Saringer’s direction. To mention only the most obvious, these include: Marcus Ayton’s quaking Lion, Sam Harrison’s squeaking Tinman and Eleanor Sutton’s ditsy Scarecrow – not forgetting puppeteer Ailsa Dalling’s manipulation of Toto the dog.

Sometimes, the combination of live action and technological effects clashes, as in the storm scene, where silk-aerialists are a too, too solid presence against twister-tossed images. Mostly, though, it is thrillingly effective, as when the bicycling Miss Gulch transforms into broomstick-soaring Wicked Witch (Polly Lister, best of baddies, in both roles), or when falling snowflakes white-blanket a field of sleep-inducing poppies.

Dorothy’s concluding insight may seem simple: there’s no place like home. In today’s world, though, that little phrase doesn’t just offer a comfort, it also presents a challenge. So, fasten seatbelts – here comes 2020!

Star ratings (out of five)
Guys and Dolls ★★★★★
Snowflake ★★★
The Wizard of Oz ★★★★

Guys and Dolls is at Crucible, Sheffield, until 18 January

Snowflake is at Kiln, London, until 25 January

The Wizard of Oz is at Leeds Playhouse until 25 January