'Guys & Dolls' review – Nicholas Hytner hits the jackpot with this exhilarating immersive revival
Read our five-star review of Guys & Dolls starring Marisha Wallace at the Bridge Theatre, currently playing through 2 September. Get Guys & Dolls tickets on London Theatre.
Would luck be a lady for Nicholas Hytner? His much-hyped, immersive production of Guys & Dolls is set to run for six months at the Bridge Theatre — a significant gamble. Well, I’m delighted to report that he’s hit the jackpot with this jubilant revival, which somehow manages to be both the most exhilarating version of Frank Loesser’s musical I’ve seen, and also the most nuanced.
That combination is thanks to an ingenious staging, building on the Bridge’s previous immersive Shakespeare productions. The audience is in the round, partly seated. The standing audience, gathered in the centre, gets thrillingly close to the action, with hydraulic platforms shooting out of the floor all over the place and neon signs descending from the ceiling.
Bunny Christie’s design basically dances more than the cast. It creates boundless staging opportunities for Hytner: whether it’s a central platform for a big Hot Box number, or a large zigzagging path across the auditorium, or several separate mini-stages acting as different locations. It matches the energy of this heightened, Damon Runyon-styled New York City, and allows for lightning-fast scene changes (occasionally the set-up for the next scene cuts into the current one, as ushers nudge the promenading audience around, but that can hopefully be ironed out over the run).
It creates a dynamic audience experience, far removed from the previous rather tired West End outing for Guys & Dolls. There’s pre-show fun (you can get a rakish hat or a pretzel from a street seller), and immersive elements during the show itself: you might be handed a Save-a-Soul Mission leaflet, or a streamer to wave, or have your drink nicked by a cheeky gambler. It all climaxes with a euphoric dance party, with cast members sticking around to boogie and take selfies with fans. It’s an inspired way to make theatre feel relevant and accessible.
But, as with the similarly thoughtful revivals of Cabaret and Oklahoma!, this isn’t just audience pandering. Thanks to the intimacy and nimbleness of this set-up, Hytner can also mine the show for psychological detail.
Guys & Dolls is that rare show in which the book is the equal of the score, and this production so joyfully lands all of Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s zingers and larger-than-life, deliciously named characters, while also giving them dimensionality.
Crucially, it addresses the inherent misogyny. Marisha Wallace’s Adelaide is no ditzy, marriage-obsessed dupe, who eventually guilts reluctant long-time fiancé Nathan into settling down with her. Instead, this is a couple desperately, carnally in love with each other, however, it’s Nathan who has the mental block. Daniel Mays (mostly known for his screen work, but making a phenomenal musical theatre debut) emphasises how Nathan relishes his status as the ultimate fixer, always staying one step ahead of the law. What happens if he stops running?
The pair of them bring impressive comic chops but also an inherent sadness to their big rows, especially the wonderfully absurd sequence in which Adelaide admits she’s invented a brood of children for her concerned mother (Mays’s pique that Nathan is just an assistant manager in this fiction is priceless).
Duet “Sue Me” — often a throwaway gag — is a masterclass in acting through song, supported by the blocking: they grow more physically distanced with each bitter exchange, while still achingly emotionally attached.
Wallace also avoids the easy humorous route with “Adelaide’s Lament,” dropping the exaggerated pronunciations in favour of framing the number as a gentle confession, aimed at the audience right beside her — one friend speaking to another. But she’s just as capable of amping up her performance in the steamy Hot Box stripteases (no coyness here), in which she owns her power and sexuality.
In contrast to these warring veterans of love are the newly met, opposites-attract pair: Celinde Schoenmaker’s robustly dedicated missionary Sarah and Andrew Richardson’s charmingly insincere gambler Sky. Again, this is framed as an equal journey, not just as a woman who needs to lighten up.
If anything, the exquisitely clarion-voiced Schoenmaker is the driving force: in “If I Were a Bell” she seems as drunk on life as on rum, tearing open Sky’s shirt and, following some Gene Kelly lamppost swinging, falling into his arms and swimming through the air. When they meet in song, their harmonies intertwine like a warm embrace.
The boyish Richardson, a smouldering, Clive Owen-esque presence, actually feels like the lost one of the pair. This mainly works nicely, although both performance and vocals need more projection. There’s also one bewildering misstep: the introduction of a stereotypical gay club in Havana. It gets around the tired trope of a feisty Latina starting a catfight, and a bisexual Sky is a fascinating idea, but it’s never actually developed.
I also would have liked more explosive choreography here (the Cuban sequence begins with dancers scattered in the crowd — less impactful at a distance), but Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s grounded, organic movement is otherwise invigorating, and the visible band gives us a glorious version of Loesser’s peerless score. Plus there are numerous scene-stealing supporting turns: Cedric Neal’s Nicely-Nicely, lending gospel fervour to “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”; Mark Oxtoby’s fast-talking Benny; the perfect sight gag of Cameron Johnson’s giant Big Jule.
Most joyfully, the happy ending feels earned. Wallace and Schoenmaker’s “Marry the Man Today” isn’t an expression of dubious making-do, but a dawning realisation — by two shrewd women knocking back shots together; fabulous — that there’s nothing certain about life or love: “You’ve simply gotta gamble”. And when it pays off, as Hytner proves, the rewards are boundless.
Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre through 2 September. Book Guys & Dolls tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: The cast of Guys & Dolls (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
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