Take a film star. Add a major musical from Broadway’s Golden era. Shake with a successful revival production. Enjoy if you can. Such is the lot of those who attend the Phoenix Theatre in London to see Rebel Wilson’s Guys and Dolls. You experience something odd and surprising, pleasurable in unexpected ways, but you don’t express surprise when you hear the show is closing four months earlier than planned.
If someone had told me that one day I would be sitting in a West End theatre, seeing a production of Guys and Dolls where the first laugh which sent up the audience as a whole (well, most of them) was garnered by Miss Adelaide miming the shaving of her pubic hair, I would have told them they were insane. Yet, that is precisely the position in which I found myself at the Chichester production of Guys and Dolls which is currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre.
I have seen this production several times including in its first season and, recently, on tour. The current version in the West End is, by some distance, the least effective. The quality of the touring cast puts the performances here into sharp relief, as do memories of some original cast members.
Casting Rebel Wilson as Miss Adelaide is not so much an example of star casting as an example of stunt casting. It’s an important distinction.
Wilson is a fearless and inventive performer, capable of wily ingenuity. She channels a seriously smutty undertone beneath a ditzy, girlie sheen of ample femininity. She would be an asset in any burlesque or vaudeville. Or television sitcom. Or raunchy comedy film.
But she is no Miss Adelaide.
Well, to be more precise, she is no Miss Adelaide for a production of Guys and Dolls in the West End.
If she were playing a character in a well-loved sitcom and that character had to play Miss Adelaide in a production of Guys and Dolls for an amateur company in the sitcom, Wilson would be a sensation. She presents an entirely fresh and utterly inappropriate characterisation which nevertheless has its beguiling aspects. If this were Carry On Up Guys and Dolls, you would engrave her award now because you will never see a performance like this again. Wilson is utterly, incredibly unique.
But that is not this gig. Here, Wilson is meant to be a supporting character in a romantic comedy. But the supernova turn she provides unbalances the narrative. Other cast members try to find ways to match her comic eccentricity – a pointless task which further undermines the strengths and joys of the masterpiece from Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
Wilson is no singer, but she can sell a song, and she has a reasonably good middle register. There is no strength or brightness at the top of her range, and so Miss Adelaide’s big notes never really come, but sassy unrelenting toilet humour and sight gags are plentiful.
What contextualises Wilson’s expansive characterisation is a smart Jack Lemmon turn from the very talented Simon Lipkin. He smoothly, and comically, grounds Wilson’s Adelaide in a tsunami of physical expressions of love – I don’t think I have ever seen an Adelaide and Nathan so desperate for each other’s mouths and bodies. Lipkin’s passion for Wilson’s Adelaide makes her performance work.
Lipkin stamps the role with his special blend of emphatic charm. There is a delicious moment when he is waiting for Adelaide when he sings a silly ditty about Joey Biltmore’s fate and uses his hat as a puppet for effect – which could only really work with a Nathan enlivened by Lipkin. He brings a soulful, earnest complexity to the floating crap-game proprietor which makes him human and delightful.
In the touring production, Tony McGill’s Lieutenant Brannigan was just one of a consistent spectrum of character performances of convincing skill. Here, in the Phoenix Theatre, his performance stands out – apart from Lipkin’s Nathan, no one else is striving for true Runyon characterisations. He also makes a comic delight out of his phone call (as Joey Biltmore) with Lipkin. You see there the echo of what might have been.
Gavin Spokes and Jason Pennycooke make an eccentric and captivating duo as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet; indeed, Pennycooke is the brightest and most idiosyncratic Benny this production has seen, alternating between camp humour and furtive lewdness with calm and measured aplomb. Their duet of the title song is the true highpoint of Act One.
As Uncle Arvide, Billy Boyle is a genial delight, and Lorna Gayle is suitably fervent as General Cartwright. There are good cameos from Cornelius Clarke’s Harry The Horse, Nic Geenshields as Big Jule and James Revell as Liver Lips Louie.
The ensemble sing very well under the skilfull musical direction of Gareth Valentine but there is a lack of precision in relation to the choreography by Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta which is disappointing and unfathomable.
The real problem with this version of Guys and Dolls is that the show’s central character, Sarah Brown, is a poor imitation of what might have been. Having seen Clare Foster and Anna O’Bryne shine in the role in this production, Siobhan Harrison gives a wan and fatally flawed performance. There is no sheen to her turn, no glory in her voice and no chemistry between her and Oliver Tompsett’s Sky.
Tompsett is surprisingly dull as Sky. He seems obsessed by the accent to the detriment of a true characterisation and, vocally, there is no magic to his numbers. He is not helped by Harrison’s dire Sarah.
Director Gordon Greenberg created a magical moment between Sky and Sarah in the original Chichester production, centred around the word “Chemistry”. There it was powerful, sexually charged, evocative. It was electric on the tour too. Here, Tompsett and Harrison turn it into an anxious comedy glitch which is simply…awkward.
Neither performer sings very accurately or with style. Such a missed opportunity. The West End deserves better. Jamie Parker and Clare Foster or Richard Fleeshman and Anna O’Byrne – those were Sky/Sarah duos for the history books, to be fondly, vividly remembered.
Rebel Wilson ensures that this version of Chichester’s Guys and Dolls provides an experience which is odd and surprising, pleasurable in unexpected ways; but you don’t express surprise when you hear the show is closing four months earlier than planned.