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posted/updated: 19 Jan 2012 -
Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dolls: A musical fable of Broadway based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon | Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser | Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
society/company: Cygnet Players (directory)
performance date: 18 Jan 2012
venue: London Oratory School Theatre, Seagrave Road, SW6 1RX
reviewer/s: John Maslen (Sardines review)

What a wonderful show Guys and Dolls is! A unique mixture of highly stylised speech pattern and sentence construction as enunciated by the characters of Damon Runyon. A heart warming story of good triumphing over bad, distinctive characters full of personality and idiosyncratic ways, and most of all a wonderful musical score packed with well-loved and familiar songs. Such a premise can be a double-edged sword of course - whilst the production will be aided by the excellence of the underlying piece, a bar has been set at a high level by countless previous productions which each new one must meet to pass muster before their audiences.
The Cygnet Players, under the direction of Jonny Clines, largely met this challenge and delivered a fine performance with high production values. The Players were particularly strong in the ensemble numbers involving choreography, which were smooth, competent, sexy on occasion and plaudits must go to Kim Findlay as choreographer. The decision to use as large a cast as possible - a full ensemble of 10 Hot Box Girls as well as a further 10 in the female ensemble and 4 in the male - paid off handsomely with the full splendour of lots of dancer/singers giving atmosphere volume and strength in the big production numbers.

Whilst acknowledging the production team one should also say that the 14 strong band under the leadership of Steven Geraghty gave excellent and vigorous backing to the many musical numbers - and from a sighting point of view, placed as they were in the pit immediately in front of the stage, this was so much nicer than the arrangement favoured by some productions whereby the musicians are at the back of or above stage, which can be an unnecessary distraction (although I am sure they would have been photogenic and easy on the eye I hasten to add!).

The theatre itself, The John McIntosh Arts Centre within the London Oratory School, is a delight - all clean lines, a fetching gallery, at once compact yet spacious - a pleasure to watch a play here. Perhaps the restrained and smart surroundings had in turn an effect on the good people of SW6 who attended a very full auditorium on opening night - they were certainly restrained in their response to some wonderfully witty lines from the book by Jo Burrows and Abe Swerling, some of which gained merely a murmur (example: poor Nathan - he's fallen in love with his own fiance). I may have paraphrased slightly there but you get the gist of it; perhaps the audience will have warmed up by the weekend...

The principals all gave solid and creditable performances. Katy Goddard went some way to capturing the sweet naivety and devotion and resignation of Adelaide, Nathan Detroit's long suffering fiance, warming more to her task as the piece progressed - her duets with Nathan firstly and then Sarah in Act 2 displayed a fine voice and stage presentation. Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army officer, as played by Danielle White, also gave great value and her purity of voice was evident, maybe even could have been toned down a touch as I felt it came across a little operatic; but her interplay with Sky Masterson, who seeks to woo her in pursuit of the winning of a bet, made for pleasant viewing and was well executed. Sky was played with panache and style by Alan Reiss who incorporated into his performance the persona of a never-do-well coming to terms with his better and more noble side with understanding and empathy - a good singing voice too!

Mark Smith who played Nathan Detroit, who keeps fiance Adelaide at bay and seeks to find a venue for the gambling meeting with increasing desperation (hence entering into a bet with Sky that the latter cannot persuade Sarah to go on a date with him) from which instance Nathan will have the necessary funds to book the venue. I felt that Mark was the outstanding performer; he even looked good in a red and green striped suit and snap brim hat and had an easy and natural stage presence. But the most riveting feature of the performance was his terrific New York accent which gave resonance to his delivery and shaped the character - it came from up high in his head and was all clipped, clean consonants and hoarse, tough but empathetic urgency. It may just have owed a small debt to Tony Curtis!

All accents were faithful but I have one or two observations on appearance and performance. As the play is set in early 1950s New York, not stated in the text but implicitly acknowledged as such, period detail must be faithful. To this end one of the gang, Liver Lips Louie, had long, bushy hair which would never have been seen at that time, particularly as a straight up and down gang member/hoodlum. I felt this was an indulgence and stood out, but in an odd and not endearing way.

Liam Walls decided to play Lieutenant Brannigan in a detached and almost academic fashion which was fine, one can go authoritarian and bullying on this part or play for laughs. I thought at first that no New York policeman of the time would sport a beard and moustache, but later decided this was possibly an inspired move on the part of the director to distinguish him fully and separately from the bad guys! Still on casting: Charlie Richards was perfectly fine in his acting as the Salvation Army elder and sang fetchingly in his elegy to Sarah, but Charlie is a young man and this part absolutely cries out for an older man - especially when Sarah refers to him as Uncle!

The costumes for all the cast were eye-catching and well chosen, giving lustre and glamour to the opening of Act 2 when Adelaide and the Hot Box girls sing 'Take Back Your Mink'. Whilst again stressing the general excellence of the production and congratulations to all involved, I would also mention that the believability aspect is crucial to the play in establishing the mean and slightly seedy, if lovable, ethos on the streets of New York as lived by the gambling fraternity. I could not believe fully in Nathan's three cohorts in wheeling and dealing, having a close relationship with him and looking out for his best interest. Seumas Grey employed facial expressions, tics and a sort of nervous energy which note effort and commitment. Olly Medlicott was competent in an 'unshowy' way but I feel that James Brookbank failed to convince as a street wise rogue, albeit a simple one as he played it. This slight gap in the capture of character and rough energy was also displayed to a small extent in the big production numbers in Act 2. 'Luck Be a Lady' and 'Sit Down You're Rockin The Boat', both done well in their way but just lacking a little danger and edge. 'Luck be A Lady' could, I believe, have had some more movement from the gang in terms of choreography. Not forgetting Rob Malone as Big Jule and Susan Swarm as General Cartwright, with very fine work from everybody involved in the Havana night club dancing/fight scene - not an easy task to pull off with complex movements and sudden changes in action.

And to Kevin Woods and Stuart Pardoe and students of RUTC - brilliant (in the complimentary sense!) lighting throughout the play, especially where quick and complete change of mood and setting was required. My very final word - bravo! A production to be proud of.
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