Jermyn Street Theatre
Thursday 16th March 2017
The British premiere – at least – of a Sondheim musical is a rare event, especially when it has taken 43 years to occur. Let that be a lesson to everyone who wants to succeed in the theatre: sometimes success can be a long time coming. Anyway, here it is at last: Aristophanes’ skit on the after-life, and his ‘book’ has been double-filtered through first the mordant wit of Burt Shevelove and then the scurrilous japing of Nathan Lane. Lane himself is in town rehearsing Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia at the National, and he popped in to see how it’s coming along, and he was delighted: his smiling face adorns a snap commemorating the visit displayed in the JST’s modest board beside the steps that lead down into its bijou and recherché precincts.
And there is something very apt in staging the show in this miniature theatre, with its mere 70 seats, petite stage and lighting box, corridor-sized foyer and bar-through-a-hatch, with loos that double as wing space, and a box office in the broom cupboard. It is a veritable condensation of a theatre, whose very abridgement lends itself very well to hosting works that take a similarly schematic and sketchy look at the world upstairs and outside. Or, indeed, far below…
This show falls exactly into that category. Greek theatre, never hot on action, gives us everything in small-sized conversations commented upon by a busy chorus. Here, they are accompanied by a wind-brass-and-percussion band to one side of the acting area, under the expert guidance of MD Tim Sutton, creator of the superbly shrunken versions of Tunick’s original orchestrations. Director and Producer Grace Wessels is a comparative newcomer to musicals and this one is not without its challenges: yet, she scores a near perfect hit in the compact, compressed world she musters.
Helped no end by Gregor Donnelly’s harmoniously inventive set and costume design, with beautiful lighting by Tim Mascall, and the useful support of Assistant Director and Movement Director (assisted by Kitty Whitelaw), Tim McArthur (he has worked with Wessels before at Ye Olde Rose and Crowne), the production is a neat, trim, efficient and pretty romp, with the ensemble musical numbers being particularly effective on the tiered staging that may or may not resemble a swimming pool. The play was – famously – conceived as an in-house entertainment for Yale, for which the chorus was supplied by the college’s swimming team, who appeared – or so I believe – actually attired in their speedos. With credentials like that, I am surprised that the show has not enjoyed considerably more attention.
The score and script both deserve it. These songs rank amongst Sondheim’s best, and the witty, light-as-air confection of the book is a constant joy, managing to stay always earthy and ‘grounded’, no matter how fancified the subject matter might become. We are on a customary classical ‘quest’ with Dionysos (Michael Matus, in briskly butch straight-man mode) dolled up as Herakles (a role taken by Chris McGuigan, who has an utter ball with his all-lion’s-pelt-and-mahoosive-weapon routine… do you get the gist of the ‘tone’ here?). Dionysos is supported by his fractious slave, Xanthias (George Rae – getting better and better with each viewing and now using his comedic chops to delicious effect). Together, they are on an utterly pointless mission to extract George Bernard Shaw from Hades and drag him back into the Here And Now in order for him to pen plays that will edify and enlighten our jaded and dispirited time (such things, apparently, being beyond the likes of living writers). And that, pretty much, is the plot.
So, without much to think or worry about, we fall back on the gags and numbers to amuse us, much in the manner of a loosely themed revue, which – in fact – is what this show is. Jonathan Wadey is the unforgettably ‘now’, and very ‘Camden’, Charon, who has the function of getting the voyagers across the Styx and into the realm of the dead. It is in this crossing that we meet the amphibians of the title, who croak away merrily, almost making us believe they’re going to ‘do’ something. (They do… but not for long.) Landing in the Underworld, we see a speciality number by Virilla the Amazon (Li-Tong Hsu, having fun with the sheer nonsense of it all), and then out comes a leather-clad dominatrix of Emma Ralston’s Pluto (the lord of hell is, if not a lady, then at least a madam – and a wonderfully clever and sexy one, too). She’s quite happy to surrender GBS (who, in the hands of Martin Dickinson, is dead, and loving it!), and even prepared to throw in Shakespeare (not Shaw’s favourite role model, even when played with such sensitivity as Nigel Pilkington shows). Oh, and then there’s a turn or two from Ariadne (Bernadette Bangura plays her sweetly), who is – or was – big in Dionysos’ books.
But, as they say, the plot need not detain us long. The point of this show is to extract as much silly, light-hearted fun as the candyfloss situation will allow. And that is plenty. No, this isn’t the fall of the house of Atreus, but – if they just loosen up a tad and enjoy themselves a bit more – then this company may well bring the house down in other ways. Enjoy!