8th August 2015
Following their collaboration for the Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2011, Olivier Award winning production of Sweeney Todd, director Jonathan Kent and leading lady Imelda Staunton once again work magic with Sondheim. Here the composer’s trademark lyrical wordplay perfectly complements Jule Styne’s full bodied score – it is also wonderful to hear a proper (that is, lengthy) overture and entr’acte in the west end, something which seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years.
From curtain up we are thrown into the transient world of show business and the show-within-a-show framework works well as a rather meta introduction to the musical. The knowing precociousness of ‘Let Me Entertain You’ – brilliantly performed by the cast of children, amongst whom Baby June particularly shines - is swiftly halted as we meet the brash force behind the twee-ness. From her famous opening line, ‘Sing out, Louise!’, heckling her own daughter from the back of the stalls, it is evident that Mama Rose (Imelda Staunton) is the gurning, jazz-hand wielding, nightmarish, mother of all stage mothers. As the defiant ‘Some People’ highlights, Rose will stop at nothing to get ahead, even stealing from her Pop to fund her dreams of glory.
As Rose and her brood of talented tykes trundle on through their never-ending road trip (the rolling location credits to the side of the proscenium are a nice detail) the children soon grow up and grow out of Mama’s tired vaudeville acts. Gemma Sutton and Dan Burton as the grown up June and Tulsa convey all the yearning of child stars stuck in their own past and their inevitable decision to leave the care of Rose is poignantly bittersweet.
While Burton and Peter Davison’s poor doormat of an agent/boyfriend, Herbie offer fine male support, Gypsy is all about the women. Lara Pulver’s transformation from mild and shy Louise, forced to play the rear end of a cow in one of many hilarious set pieces, to the sexy and seductive Gypsy Rose Lee – all in the space of one song! – is a sight to behold. Styne and Sondheim’s use of the reprise of Baby June’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’ here is a masterstroke and sums up the uncomfortable limbo that child performers can be subject to. Also remarkable are Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe’s trio of aging strippers; their ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ is pure camp.
But if Kent’s production belongs to anyone, it is most definitely Staunton. Her Rose is droll, brazen, imposing, and, ultimately, extremely vulnerable. The image of her hunched figure being led off stage makes for a touching final tableau and coming almost directly after her show-stopping ‘Rose’s Turn’ highlights how versatile an actor Staunton is. Above all, she is heart-wrenchingly human, the audience experiences a whole spectrum of emotion along with Rose as Staunton imbues her with a charisma and relatability that creates a light and shade to the character, even in her harshest moments there remain echoes of tenderness.
Anthony Ward’s design feels intimate in the smaller Savoy theatre (especially when compared to Curve’s 2012 production which utilised the theatre’s vast stage), but the set details are beautiful and convey a sense of time and place effectively, especially in the back-stage scenes.
Musicals rarely come as classy or more perfectly formed as Gypsy and Kent’s production absolutely does service to the work of Styne, Sondheim and Laurents and should go down as a classic revival in years to come. While accolades are to be expected, come awards season it will be a huge shock especially if Staunton is not universally recognised for her performance.
Gypsy plays at the Savoy Theatre until 28th November 2015