Bridge Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
There comes a time in the life-cycle of a new build modern theatre on London’s South Bank, usually around six years after opening, that they put on their first musical, invariably settling on Guys and Dolls.
So it is right now at the Bridge Theatre with Nicholas Hytner’s production and so it was a couple of miles upstream at the National Theatre in 1982, when Richard Eyre put on the show that turned into the National’s first blockbuster hit. Six years is a theme here, for six years after Eyre’s moneyspinner opened he went on to become the venue’s artistic director and six years after he stood down from that role, Hytner took over. So clearly, Guys and Dolls is a great musical, much favoured by the nation’s great directors.
But do great musicals and great directors lead to great productions?
Played immersively in the round and with New York-style neons rising and falling from the flies, Hytner’s Guys and Dolls sets out to be a distinctive interpretation of this classic show. What is delivered however is a combination of the sensational but also the decidedly average that Hytner could have avoided.
The female leads are both outstanding with Marisha Wallace as Miss Adelaide nailing the perpetual fiancée. In both spoken word and song, Wallace captures the frustrating, bittersweet predicament of Adelaide’s 14-year engagement. At her best in solo and duetted numbers Wallace is, as always, a joy to watch. Equally, Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown is another delight. Hers is a challenging character to pull off, the strait-laced Sergeant at the Save A Soul Mission falling for the roguish Sky Masterson. Schoenmaker however confidently captures Sarah’s complexities, and the vocal beauty of these two women singing together in Marry The Man Today proves to be the evening’s unexpected musical highlight.
The male leads are all competent but not memorable. Daniel Mays doesn’t quite get the New York shtick of Nathan Detroit and while Andrew Richardson smoulders as a very cool Sky Masterson, he fails to make the dramatic highs that his big number Luck Be A Lady requires. The programme notes suggest that neither Mays nor Richardson have significant experience in musical theatre and it shows.
Cedric Neal plays Nathan Detroit’s buddy Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Typically Guys and Dolls demands that the role is played as a groceries-gobbling, absent-minded slob albeit with a heart of gold, who in the prayer meeting at the show’s endgame metamorphoses into a show-stopping hero. Neal is a gifted performer, but struggles to convince as a slob. Big Jule (Cameron Johnson) calls him a “fat water buffalo” at the prayer meeting but in this production that description just does not ring true. If Hytner had thought to have had Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s brother Boris step up to the role, it may have proved a far more satisfying casting choice.
And there are tiny gems in Loesser’s Runyon-esque dialogue that Hytner has steamrollered. Sky Masterson’s exclamation of “Cider!” after Nathan suckers him into taking Sarah to dinner, together with Lt Brannigan’s (Cornelius Clarke) wry wish that “I hope there’s nothing in heredity” are both tossed away with no attention paid to the lines’ comic potential. Loesser was a genius, with every word both of his lyrics and of Abe Burrows' libretto painstakingly crafted. Hytner and his cast need to pay more attention to the detail.
This may not be one of the great Guys and Dolls, but with Tom Brady’s 14-piece orchestra up in the circle, it does make for a night of fun theatre. Go and see it, for it’s a probable 12 to 7 that you’ll come out grinning.
Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan