Guys and Dolls review – Nicholas Hytner’s gamble pays off

Bridge theatre, London
This immersive production of the New York musical has a bold design, superb singing and chemistry between its stars

Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical comedy about sin and romantic salvation might feel dated in its themes but Nicholas Hytner’s production is a feat of innovative staging. The Bridge’s auditorium has been radically rearranged for a promenading audience, with Bunny Christie’s mobile stage continually remaking itself, its platforms rising up to reveal New York City’s bars, clubs and street corners. This movement creates a distraction from the drama, to some degree, yet captures the spirit of Damon Runyon’s original story and the unceasing bustle of his “Runyonland”. It is a marvel to see worlds constructed before our eyes, accentuated by Paule Constable’s lighting design.

There is the option for some audience members to watch from an outer tier of the auditorium and, having chosen to sit, I felt regretfully distant from the immersive elements. It was clear that the promenading audience was experiencing the show differently.

Marisha Wallace as Adelaide.
Sensational, as ever … Marisha Wallace as Adelaide. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Luminous signs overhead accompany scene switches, from the club at which showgirl Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace, sensational as always) performs to the Save-a-Soul church mission of Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker). This signage, with its odd resemblance to that of the restaurant chain Ed’s Easy Diner, is a clever method of signposting and the orchestra delightfully performs from a raised cubicle with theatrical lightbulbs around it.

The musical’s story and themes feel entirely unreconstructed against this bold staging, with Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s book and its street vernacular sounding peculiarly stiff. While Daniel Fish’s brilliantly reformulated Oklahoma! – currently in the West End – transforms both content and form, this production only achieves the latter and is an emphatically traditional enactment of the story itself, with period dress (costumes by Deborah Andrews) and exaggeratedly cartoonish characters. The performances are strong – especially the singing voices – even if there are few points of emotional connection. Wallace gives an entertaining rendition of Adelaide’s Lament along with the witty duet Sue Me, shared with Adelaide’s gambling fiance, Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays). Schoenmaker and Andrew Richardson (as Sky Masterson) infuse I’ve Never Been in Love Before with romance.

Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Marisha Wallace.
Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown with Marisha Wallace. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

There is one potentially dangerous moment in that central romance between Sarah and Sky when, during their night in Havana, he is seductively pulled into a clinch with a man on a dance floor of male couples with bare chests and shorts. The suggestion that Sky just might be gay creates a thrilling spark of subversion but is an isolated moment, gone in a flash, as if a scene from a far more daring reconception.

Maybe because of the ever-reconstructing set, the drama itself never quite sweeps us in, although there is a sweet dynamic between Richardson and Schoenmaker, as well as good comic chemistry between Wallace and Mays. The choreography (by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins) never quite flies, maybe owing to the slightly cramped size of the sets, but this show’s formal effort of reimagining offers a lot to admire, even if I did so rather from afar.

• Guys and Dolls is at the Bridge theatre, London, until 2 September.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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