‘Guys and Dolls’ is a musical with such a towering reputation – by all accounts Richard Eyre’s ecstatically received 1982 revival all but saved the National Theatre – that I slightly struggled to see what all the fuss was about the last time it came to town, in a played-for-laughs 2015 revival. Yes, it was entertaining. I’m just not sure if it felt remarkable in the way the history books describe.
Well, now I get it. Nicolas Hytner’s Bridge production is a staggering achievement, a more or less flawless take on traditional terms that’s turned into something transcendent by the staging, from Hytner and designer Bunny Christie. If the duo’s excellent ‘immersive’ Shakespeare productions of ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ were the dry runs, then ‘Guy and Dolls’ is their method perfected.
After decades of treating the great musicals of the twentieth century as museum pieces, there’s a growing recognition in Western theatre that these classics will fall behind if not subject to some reinvention. Generally that means darker, more leftfield takes: witness the current West End productions of ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Oklahoma!’.
Unless you’re going to struggle to stand for two-and-a-half hours, Hytner and Christie’s version of Frank Loesser’s 1950 classic is not a difficult or challenging one. Instead, it uses a stunningly choreographed and – crucially – incredibly fun series of rising and falling platforms to stage the show right in the middle of a standing audience that’s deftly manoeuvred around by ushers dressed as NYC cops. It brings you incredibly close to the action: if you’re inclined to stand at the front you’ll usually be within a few inches of some performer or other. It’s a lot more exciting than sitting, the difference between standing or sitting at a gig. And it should be stressed that it’s only the stalls that have been taken out: there’s plenty of seating, and there you’re still getting an incredibly intimate experience that avoids the odd dodgy sight line that’s inevitable if you’re on the floor.
To be clear, it’s the same general idea as the two Shakespeare plays, but much bolder, busier and more dynamic, with an inevitable frisson gained from the proximity to world-class singing and dancing.
With the staging duly drooled over, let’s talk about ‘Guys and Dolls’ itself. Loessner’s musical – with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows – is an immaculately structured comedy bursting with deathless one-liners and wonderful characters that follows an assortment of lovelorn New York City lowlifes at the seedy height of Prohibition.
The biggest name here is probably Daniel Mays, who seamlessly translates his natural geezer-isms into the New York equivalent, thoroughly loveable as shambolic Nathan Detroit, a small-time crook desperately trying to stage an illegal game of craps for the local wiseguys. There’s a small fortune to be made: but he needs $1,000 to pay off the venue, and he is not the sort of guy who has $1,000. His biggest problem, though, is what to do about his longsuffering fiance Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace), who has been hitched to him for 14 long years.
US performer Wallace is absolutely sensational: she’s got the lung power and nuance to totally own standards like ‘A Bushel and a Peck’ and ‘Sue Me’. But more to the point, she’s got the acting chops to really do something with the character. Adelaide is traditionally played as an OTT light relief ditz, but here Wallace channels tremendous empathy into her: here, she’s a woman who would seem to put up with Nathan not because she’s an idiot, but because she actually loves him. Even her wild lies to her mother – who thinks they’re married with five kids – feel like a desperate attempt to give bumbling Nathan space to sort himself out. Wallace gives the role a palpable dignity and presence: still fun, but much more soulful than usual.
If Nathan and Adelaide are the beating heart of Hytner’s production, then the romance between Andrew Richardson’s suave career gambler Sky Masterton and Celinde Schoenmaker’s missionary Sergeant Sarah Brown feels appreciably shakier. That’s probably the point. Sky does, after all, only ask her out on a date (to Havana!) as a bet with Nathan.
She’s funny, strong, but ultimately fragile, unsure of who she is as Sky makes her seriously question her devotion to saving New York’s sinners.
He’s interesting: yes, he has some great one-liners, but the lisp-voiced Richardson – in a great stage debut – plays him with a slightly mournful vulnerability. When the pair go to a bar in Havana and Sky dances with another woman… well here it’s a gay bar, and it’s not a woman Sky dances with. A bit of fun, for sure, but the inference is surely that Sky is struggling with his identity as much as Sarah is with hers; come the end their romance feels sincere, but fragile. Which is good: romcoms shouldn’t have to end in total resolution.
Choreography legend Arlene Phillips turns 80 this year, and is better known these days as a slightly cheesy telly figure. But her tight, pneumatic routines (co-choreographed with James Cousins) feel fresh as a daisy – the performing spaces are tiny, so there’s not a lot of fancy stuff (the entertaining brawl in the gay bar is an obvious exception), but such sequences as there are, crackle with energy.
The staging is so innately exuberant that the production can get away with reining the show’s hammier tendencies. As well as Wallace’s more empathetic Miss Adelaide, Cedric Neal’s affable take on gangster Nicely-Nicely Johnson is much less light relief than tends to be the way. His big gospel-style showstopper ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ is still bags of fun. But in casting a Black actor – and a relatively restrained one at that – it sidesteps the usual ‘joke’ that a schlubby white guy has incongruously pulled a big churchy number out of the bag. As it turns out, it’s still fun.
It’s strongly cast all over, but a special shout out to the ushers: they’re doing a pretty weird job (I’m not sure if ‘ushers’ is even the right term) but they herd us around with good-natured precision: if they were less well drilled and tolerant of our occasional slowness on the uptake of where to go, it just wouldn’t work.
I appreciate I’ve been a bit giddy here, and yes, I have in fact seen other shows with interactive sets before. But what Hytner and Christie have done so brilliantly is seamlessly integrate this stuff into mainstream musical entertainment. Not every show is going to benefit from staging along these lines. But as the era of the proscenium arch draws to a close, it feels like most directors of musicals could learn something from this.
‘Guys and Dolls’ ends in a big dance party, the cast congaing through our midst, posing gamely for selfies, and just generally letting off a bit of steam for five minutes. It’s a moment of pure joy, the last and best of a non-stop night of them.