Like Gypsy, the musical that directly preceded it at the Savoy Theatre, this Guys and Dolls started life at the Chichester Festival before finding a home on the West End. Gordon Greenberg’s production proves to be slick and smooth, but its real strength lies in the fact that its dynamism is rendered within very tightly controlled parameters.
Neither Chichester nor the Savoy bless productions with the largest of stages, and Peter McKintosh’s set works with the area that is available to create a coherent space that draws the eye in. The main feature is an overarching semi-circle full of lights and advertisements, and this proves to be an excellent framing device. Additional props such as shoeshine booths also force the eye centre-stage, while the Mission Hall is represented through an angular backdrop that again points arrow-like to the middle ground.
The choreography is by Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright and, amidst standout performances of ‘A Bushel and a Peck’ and the ‘Crapshooters Ballet’, frequently combines controlled movement with a sense of free-for-all. For example, in ‘Havana’ a fight erupts between the main protagonists but this is often supported by the chorus moving in more synchronised mass formations behind them. These principles of staging extend to the overall direction so that Nathan Detroit expresses himself naturalistically while on either side of him Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Gavin Spokes) and Benny Southstreet (Ian Hughes) adopt more stylised gestures. This latter pair also execute ‘Guys and Dolls’ well by ensuring a continuous stream of movement as even the Taj Mahal is rendered with just a few effective arm movements, and all of the touches exemplify an approach in which the attention to detail is exquisite. For example, the split second facial expression of a domesticated Sky Masterson proves hilarious, whereas any attempt to have sustained or exaggerated it would have killed the joke.
Gareth Valentine, who is also responsible for the dance arrangements, conducts impressively, and although the voices are necessarily amplified, this is done subtly and skilfully. In the underground scene in the sewer the volume is turned up to ensure that the dialogue enjoys the type of echo that would be experienced in such a setting. As Sky Masterson, Jamie Parker, who appeared in several Sinatra and Sondheim Proms last summer, effectively conveys the cool, charming gambler in possession of compassion and a conscience, and his vocal style suits the character perfectly. Siubhan Harrison as Sarah Brown achieves the right balance between pious determination and a loving humanity, and her voice is highly pleasing.
The production takes something of a risk in casting Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide as older figures than usual, but it is one that pays off. If David Haig’s Nathan isn’t the suave Sinatra figure of the film, through some very skilful acting he reveals the earthy, and immutable, nature of a chancer caught between a fiancée begging for marriage and gamblers insisting on a crap game. Sophie Thompson is a class act, playing up to the idea of Miss Adelaide being a has-been of a showgirl. Her phrasing throughout the evening is impeccable and in ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ she achieves the right balance between theatricality and plausibility so that we can, to an extent, believe that she really is discovering the medical facts of which she reads for the first time.
Gavin Spokes as Nicely-Nicely Johnson delivers a stirring performance of ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, and the song’s two encores reveal the extent to which the production carries a celebratory air. As I sat in the stalls I suspected that the audience’s sustained clapping and cheering following the initial performance was motivated in part by a wish to see just how long the cast could sustain its tricky frozen tableau! Such a joke on the spectators’ part, however, only proves how involved they felt with a production that can be as delightful as it is frequently hilarious.