Seriously, though…The Wharf’s production of Sondheim’s first musical, directed by Liz Sharman, is hilarious. Based on the farces of the Roman playwright, Plautus, it first hit Broadway in 1962. Don’t expect high art or political correctness. From the first number, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: a comedy tonight’), it’s clear that this is nothing but a fast-moving, light-hearted, old-fashioned, slightly dodgy, slapstick, pun-filled, fun-fest.
The set is beautifully painted, in authentic colours, with quirky touches. Three doors, as is traditional with this play. Not much space for the action, but perfect for the running about, in and out of dusty Roman windows, requirements of the show
It’s the story of how Pseudolus (Jonathon West), a slave of Rome in 200BC, buys his freedom using his knowledge of human nature, the help of hapless fellow slave Hysterium (Chris Underwood), and all other devious means at his disposal. He lives in the house of Senex (Chris Smith) and Domina (Lesley Scholes), and their son, Hero (Tyler Bartlett), in the same hood as Erronius (John Craig), a befuddled ancient, and Lycus (John Winterton), a lascivious brothel-keeper. The young Hero has his eye on Philia (Hayley Baxter), a young and as yet unbesmirched courtesan, and agrees that Pseudolus will have his freedom if he can get the twee couple together. Other characters are the imperious soldier Milos Gloriosus (Nick Swift), various smiley Proteans, and (Good God, is that Miss Whiplash (Jemma Gingell)?) a trio of silent, but enthusiastic, fan wielding prostitutes.
The action gets sillier as the play progresses, and the web of lies that Pseudolus has woven begins to fall apart. Just a bit of mare’s sweat, and it will all work out. Maybe if we pretend she’s dead it will be fine. Maybe if we all dress up as other people that will do the trick. Not. Quick song? Go on, then.
This is a high energy show, with a lot of quick changes and movements. I can’t fault the choreography, or the superb comic timing, but Sondheim only gets a B for the songs. ‘Comedy Tonight’ is pretty catchy, and ‘Lovely’ is memorable, although that is partly due to Hayley Baxter (sweet voice, well-played coyness) and Chris Underwood’s interpretations. Victoria Warren, Musical Director, played the score. Lot of sharps and flats, apparently. Difficult keys.
Acting awards? Lesley Scholes (of course) as the bossy (‘carry my bust with pride’) Roman matron, Hayley Baxter and Tyler Bartlett for doing impossibly cute with straight faces, Jemma Gingell for bravery, Jonathon West for holding it all together, and the entire cast for being on it like a car bonnet whilst appearing to be having the most fun ever.
But it’s the performances of Chris Underwood, John Craig, and Nick Swift, that have me absolutely kissing myself. The part of the camp and nervous slave Hysterium is the most challenging in the play, and Chris is awesome in the role. His renditions of the anxiety song ‘I’m Calm’, and ‘Lovely’, are a triumph, and his drag shenanigans are a wonder to behold (clearly a career in modelling beckons).
John Craig plays the part of the doddery, partially sighted Erronius to perfection (John Craig, John Craig, he was witty, he was vague), and Nick Swift, as the arrogant soldier, dominates the stage (in a good way) with his enormous presence, booming voice, and massive wrath.
I haven’t laughed so much or so loudly in public since, well we won’t talk about that. It was the dress rehearsal, so there was only a small audience, but everyone was in stitches from the outset, and by the end a few of us were incandescent with mirth. ‘One of the funniest things I have ever seen at The Wharf’ (and he’s seen and been in a few) said Lewis Cowen. ‘The funniest show I’ve ever been a part of’ (and he’s seen and been in a few too) said Chris Underwood. I laughed till my stomach hurt, and I’m still laughing now.
When I’d recovered from the wild exhilaration of it all, and had enthused sufficiently, I had a word with Liz Sharman (well done, that woman!) about political correctness. Liz said that she dealt with the whole prostitute thing by making the male characters seem silly in their dealings with them, and that she didn’t cut anything from the script. I’d expected the show to be much ruder, and camper, and more along the lines of the (Ooh Matron!) Carry On films. Undoubtedly some might find the very fact of prostitutes offensive, but apart from a bust, a whip, a fart joke and a few tacky comments, I found the humour quite polite, and the general feel of the whole thing quite…innocent. Not much to upset your average four-year old, or your Gran. But then it’s an American show, and I am hardly Mary Whitehouse.
And after all, these things were acceptable in the 60s. And 70s. And 200BCs…
I enjoyed this show so much that I’m giving it ten out of ten.
© Gail Foster 28th April 2018