Tony Cross sat down and rocked the boat as he watched the semi-staged production of Guys and Dolls at the Royal Albert Hall last weekend...
I suspect – based on the audience reaction – my feelings about this production of Guys & Dolls are out of step with most of those who were sitting in the Royal Albert Hall last Friday. Perhaps I was letting my feelings about being charged £10 for a programme seep into my enthusiasm. Perhaps not.
I should say straight away that this review might be the only one you will read that hardly saw the face of a performer. We were sitting in the ‘choir seats’, which are behind the stage. We were there because they are cheap. I sometimes think I should call my articles The Restricted View because that’s where I often find myself.
Now, I understand that a stage is a finite space. I also understand that a lot of London’s venues are old and their restricted views and lack of leg room cannot be helped (although sometimes I do wonder about that.) However, I also wish that directors would stick someone in the cheapest seats when blocking out their performances to make things slightly less annoying. This was in the Royal Albert Hall. Why not do it in the Round? Perhaps Guys & Dolls wouldn’t suit that kind of staging? Who knows? I am not a theatre director. I am just an audience member. But it seems to me if you want to encourage people who aren’t wealthy to go to the theatre, improving the experience for those of us in the cheap seats might be a step in the right direction.
So, I mostly watched the backs of Lara Pulver (Sarah Brown), Adrian Lester (Sky Masterson), Meow Meow (Miss Adelaide), Jason Manford (Nathan Detroit) and Clive Rowe (Nicely Nicely Johnson) as they performed a half-staged version of what is probably my favourite musical.
It was OK. So, let me go on and damn it with faint praise.
The acting was fine. I am not qualified to judge the quality of the singing (although one cast member who will go unnamed seemed to miss a cue and then forget a line or two) but the person I was watching with is and she was a little concerned with the inconsistent delivery from Adrian Lester. I thought he was fine and he’s certainly a bloody good actor. Lara Pulver was great though. A real Mission Doll. Meow Meow – who I’ve seen in three different types of production over the last couple of years and like a lot – made a fine Miss Adelaide too. Jason Manford* was fine as Nathan Detroit – although I wish he could have tried to shave off his beard, but that’s quibbling of the most pathetic kind. After all this was only for two nights not a long theatre run.
It just felt there was something a bit wrong with Stephen Mear’s decision making here. It wasn’t a fully staged production, but there was some proper song and dance stuff including some rather impressive choreography at points. However, it seemed a little under-cooked. Indeed, I felt that a little more time in preparation might have helped.
Also, they chose to have a narrator, Stephen Mangan, and that I found bloody irritating. Not because of anything Stephen Mangan was doing. The performance was fine. I just didn’t feel it was necessary. And it kept popping me out of my air of suspended disbelief.
This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself, but I did. Mostly. And I’d pay money to watch Clive Rowe do ‘Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat’ alone to be honest. That’s a proper showstopper when done well that number and Rowe really does it well.
I’d be interested to see what Mear could do with this cast and this musical given a chance to run a proper fully-staged performance in a West End theatre somewhere (or as a touring production) because there is the seed of something really good here I think but this Friday night it didn’t quite bloom for me.
*Although he should have a word with his publicist because the huge amount of space his entry takes in the programme dwarfed Adrian Lester’s, which based on Lester’s career seemed ridiculously immodest.
Image - Royal Albert Hall