Stuart King

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at the Bridge Theatre

Firstly, if you were to gather together a group of musical theatre reviewers in one place, what would be their collective noun? Secondly, if the purpose of that gathering were to ascertain from them the perfect musical, what would it be? Chances are, amidst the generous cross-section of nominees, Frank Loesser’s 1950 classic GUYS AND DOLLS would feature strongly.

The cast of Guys and DOlls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo Manuel HarlanThe cast of Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan

As a reviewer, I was unfortunately unable to attend the press night back in mid-March for Nicholas Hytner’s revival staged at the Bridge Theatre, but this week I remedied that situation and finally attended a performance. I am delighted to report that the universally positive reviews are not a mere matter of effusive hyperbole. The show is an absolute gem.

Many would cite the lack of any flimsy filler songs as a major strength in Loesser’s musical — every tune is there for a reason and each of them adds something substantial to the whole. It simply IS a very special show. So what of this specific production upon which so much praise has been heaped? Does it for example, measure-up to Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production from 1982 (revived in 1997)? The answer is perhaps yes and also, not quite.

The promenade style of theatre presentation so much favoured at this venue, reflects the technical and mechanical specification which form the innards of the building, and which offer such flexibility when deciding the best format for presenting a production. Hytner has staged Shakespeare and large-scale musicals here, with audience members milling around the action, getting in the way of sharply-drilled stage hands who hurriedly shepherd and shove patrons to where they need to be (or rather, to where they really shouldn’t be if they are to avoid a rushing cast member, or a piece of moving set).

In the current production, the staging uses entrances and exits at the corners of the auditorium, adjusting the height of the playing area to reflect whichever section should be grabbing the audience’s attention at any given moment. In the main, this works nicely-nicely (theatre reviewer’s joke) but there are moments when key cast members have to engage with the audience on all sides at once, which becomes a little frenetically fractured and fractious. The massive crowd pleaser Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Cedric Neal) is always eagerly awaited and Neal’s rendition certainly matches the remembered thrill of Clive Rowe’s stint in the role. Lydia Bannister as Miss Adelaide comes close to emulating Julia Mackenzie and Imelda Staunton who each extracted oodles of comedy gold from playing the cabaret performer doll, who remains unmarried despite the repeated promises of her dice-game hustling beau Nathan Detroit played by Daniel Mays. Andrew Richardson as Sky Masterson accepts an unsavoury bet requiring him to woo Salvation Army acolyte Sarah Brown Celinde Schoenmaker but in the midst of incompatibility, the two fall for each other and a soul (or maybe two) is saved.

Guys and Dolls is an exceedingly busy show and at the performance I attended, there was a sense that the leads are having to consciously pace themselves and be extra mindful of vocal production in a space which can easily soak-up sound and demand over-projection from its performers. But the exuberance of the company numbers never fails to deliver in spades and even the interval boasts cast members presenting a small-scale cabaret to entertain those who haven’t felt brave enough to elbow their way through the crush at the bar.

The challenge of tackling a near perfect show, is that the end result may not live up to expectation or do it justice, but aside from a few minor reservations, this production shows how an inventive approach can pay dividends and bring an established classic to the attention of a young and appreciative new audience. If you haven’t yet seen it in person, you have until Feb 2024 to grab a ticket.