REVIEW: Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 29th October 2014

Clare Foster as Sarah Brown and Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson ©Alastair Muir
Clare Foster as Sarah Brown and Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson ©Alastair Muir

Guys and Dolls
Chichester Festival Theatre
23 August 2014
4 Stars

When people talk about Guys and Dolls, the quite perfect “musical fable of Broadway” written by Frank Loesser (music/lyrics) and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (book), based upon Damon Runyon’s The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown and other stories, the conversation usually focusses on two things: Adelaide’s Lament and Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat. In one way, that is perfectly understandable; they can be tremendous, show-stopping numbers. But in another way, it indicates a complete failure, perhaps based on seeing ill-conceived productions, to come to grips with what Guys and Dolls is all about, what makes it tick.

It is the story of Sarah and Sky which is the narrative thrust of Guys and Dolls. Fundamentally, it is the story of Sarah, for essentially everything Sky does is for or with Sarah. Everything else, including the ups and downs of Nathan and Adelaide, serves that central pulse. Without the focus being squarely on Sarah and Sky, the show can’t work as well as it should. Yes, a version of the show that thrusts Nathan and Adelaide into the spotlight can be funny and memorable, but it is not the real deal.

Now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre is a revival of Guys and Dolls which is the real deal. Directed by Gordon Greenberg, this production understands its fable origins (colour and exaggeration everywhere, including a gangster dressed as a Nun on a bicycle), is played and paced so that words, dialogue, character, lyrics and music fuse into a coherent, compelling whole (there are no “Let’s have a song” moments here) and, happily, is all about Sarah and Sky and their “will they, won’t they” romance.

And in Jamie Parker’s Sky and Clare Foster’s Sarah, Greenberg has the perfect duo around whom he can anchor his production.

Parker is astonishingly good as the suave, cocky gambler; the man who can drink and laugh with the boys, dance with and charm the ladies, tell a great story and sniff a chance to make a fast grand with the precision of the Large Hadron Collider. Sky is a man men want to be and woman want to be with. Parker is effortless at conveying the sense of all of this in his Sky.

At the same time, though, he is gifted enough to be able to show the chinks in Sky’s armour – his surprise at being attracted to Sarah, his suppression of his carnal response to her drunken advances because of his sense of fair play, his pain at having failed her and, finally, his all-consuming joy and pleasure at being her husband.

And he sings with gusto and aplomb. Luck Be A Lady Tonight pulses with pleasure and passion in Parker’s interpretation and the sense that everything really is riding on the one throw of the dice is palpable and exciting. But the tender I’ll Know and the reflective My Time Of Day allow Parker to show his range and versatility to advantage. Vocally, the role requires a lot; when coupled with the acting requirements, it is often an almost impossible ask. Parker makes it all work – vividly, seductively and thrillingly.

The moment when, in conversation with Sarah, the concept of “chemistry” between two people is mentioned, Parker freezes, holds the moment, looking directly at Foster’s breath-taken-away Sarah and that held silence from both speaks more about the instinctive feeling each has for the other but is trying to ignore than any amount of dialogue. Later, when the same frisson occurs again, the next time “chemistry” is mentioned, you could fry an egg on the sizzling tension emanating from the pair. Genius stuff.

Foster is quite perfect as Sarah and helps make Parker’s Sky heavenly. She encapsulates the opposites of Sky: tense, buttoned-down, insular, belonging, trapped, brisk if not brittle, determined to save the souls of others without thinking about her own soul, her own self. Foster shows all this but manages to make Sarah endearing from the outset. That’s quite a trick.

In the Havana sequence, Foster is superb, charting meticulously Sarah’s journey from distrusting uncertainty through Barcadi-enhanced wild release to open, broad and intensely warm acceptance of love. She is phenomenal to watch and If I Were A Bell pure joy, as well as an acting class.

Vocally, she is everything Sarah needs to be. Her I’ll Know is pure and clear, quite radiant, especially the impressively soft, floating notes encapsulating both hope and pain. In I’ve Never Been In Love Before she and Parker reach a vocal harmony that is beguiling and irresistible, the kind of singing that makes you cry with joy. And the show’s Eleven O’Clock number, Marry The Man Today, gives Foster a chance to display other comic and vocal skills, a chance she leaps upon with gusto and relish.

Together, Parker and Foster are Runyon dynamite; the best pairing of Sky and Sarah I have ever seen or heard. At the very end of the show, when Sky stands behind Sarah and embraces her, strongly, possessively, gently, and Sarah melts into him, you see in a snapshot the layered attention to detail which makes these performances so memorable.

Peter Polycarpou makes a serviceable Nathan Detroit, landing many laughs. His finest moments, and they are very fine, are in the sewer scene in Act Two when dealing with the crafty shenanigans of Big Julie (an impressive, impossibly tall Nic Greenshields). There is excellent character work from Nick Wilton, who really makes something memorable out of almost nothing as Harry The Horse, and Neil McCaul who is sheer delight as Sarah’s protective, but slightly mischievous, Uncle Arvide.

Ian Hughes is terrifically sprightly and colourfully comic as Benny Southstreet and does not put a foot wrong in any department. Harry Morrison sings Nicely-Nicely Johnson impeccably but is a little to trills and fuss with some of the dialogue. If he let that go, he would be perfect. His Sit Down was gloriously sung and the duet with Hughes, the titular number, is effervescent and gleeful.

I found Sophie Thompson’s vulgar, grotesque and pantomime-Dameish version of Adelaide distracting and wholly unfunny. If Lucille Ball played a zombie in a musical it would look and sound like this. It was not until Foster joined her for Marry The Man today that she seemed more than a demented scrub turkey, all clucks, and squawks and feathers.

There was no warmth, no real underlying sadness – which, of course, is what makes Adelaide work. She should zing on stage in her two Hot Box numbers; her onstage persona a complete contrast to her real life “what-is-Nathan-doing-to-me” stresses. That said, the Chichester crowd hooted and hollered for her, and she is given the last bow by the Director. For my money, though, Adelaide is a more interesting, more complex, and infinitely more funny character than Thompson suggests.

Not enough care is given by Greenberg to the activities of the ensemble. In Guys and Dolls, everyone onstage should have a particular purpose, something to add to the fable of Broadway being played out. Too often, here, they were just there, singing and dancing.

The choreography is, surprisingly, not particularly inventive, interesting or successful. The Overture, the Havana scene and the introduction to the Sewer scene all lacked cohesion or interest and in the Havana scene there was not a trace of the smoky, sensual, intoxicating atmosphere and the touch of exotic frenzy that there needed to be. Foster manages that on her own. Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright just do not seem to have grasped the important contribution dance can make to these moments. The rest of the dancing was workmanlike, but there was nothing to cause anyone to consider leaping to their feet.

The music, under Gareth Valentine’s experienced eye, was all played marvellously well with a profoundly brassy emphasis. Cleverly, some songs started without accompaniment, seamlessly marrying text and score. Everything was sung at the right speed, with the right energy and accuracy.

I confess to missing a stronger Percussion presence in the orchestrations; too often there was not a definitive pulse of percussion when there could/should have been. And I did not care, at all, for the additions to Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat, which seemed like an effort to recapture the magic of Brotherhood of Man from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Sit Down is Nicely’s singing testimony – it just needs him in impressive vocal form and a chorus that backs him. It doesn’t need General Cartwright having a Miss Jones moment.

Peter McKintosh’s set works well enough, but it is a bit clumsy and not nearly colourful enough. Nor are the costumes. But there are some clever touches – I liked the fact that Nathan and Adelaide were always in some shade of purple, that Sky and Sarah were in blue and red respectively except for Havana. Only Jamie Parker could pull off getting away with that final Salvation Army costume. The shoe shine stall proves to be an inspired set choice, firmly rooting the action in the hustle and bustle of Broadway.

Whatever people may say, Guys and Dolls is not foolproof. It can be done very badly. This is not one of those occasions. Here, the focus is rightly on Sarah and Sky and Foster and Parker are par excellence. You would be silly to miss seeing their wonderful, world class performances.

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