Life & Culture

Guys & Dolls theatre review: Thrills and a spill as Hytner takes risks and hits the jackpot

The ambition of the evening astounds with the director’s first big musical in years


Guys & Dolls
Bridge Theatre | ★★★★★

I have interviewed Nicholas Hytner several times over the years. One was towards the end of his tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre, a golden age in the venue’s history but not one known for its musicals, other than Jerry Springer: The Opera near the beginning of his 12 years and the groundbreaking London Road towards the end.

Both these shows were brilliant in their way but neither were what you would call classics in the mould of those revived by Hytner’s predecessor Trevor Nunn: Oklahoma, South Pacific, Anything Goes and My Fair Lady.

No artistic director likes to emulate his or her predecessor but when I asked Hytner, who before his days at the National had directed Miss Saigon, why he chose not to revive a “big musical”, his answer was almost world-weary.

He spoke of how no other form of theatre demands as much effort and resources. It was an answer I kept thinking of during this his revival of Frank Loesser’s sublime classic about New York hustlers based on the writings of Damon Runyon.

After A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar, this is the third show at Hytner’s Bridge Theatre to be described as immersive.

The word is much bandied about these days. In many cases it involves donning a digital headset that transport the wearer to a different environment. But here it means placing paying punters (with the right kind of ticket) at the heart of the action set in Manhattan’s streets and Havana’s nightlife.

The sky above is festooned with street signage that could have been lifted from the 1955 movie starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra. Plinths magically rise like controlled earthquakes forming chest-high platforms and steamy New York thoroughfares.

On these Arlene Phillips’s choreography is free yet necessarily tight as the crapshoot ballet spins and slides perilously close to the edges.

And during Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, musical theatre’s great religious conversion, Cedric Neal’s Nicely-Nicely leads a congregation of sinners and Salvation Army missionaries while bounding across the mission’s chairs.

On this night he misjudged a step sending a chair smacking to the ground, yet without breaking his stride.

It confirmed that for all the military precision of the staging, the DNA of this production, like the lowlifes and high rollers betting their bottom dollar, does not mind taking a chance.

The air is thrillingly charged with a frisson of danger and the energy of the in-yer-face performances.

Among the finest of these is Daniel Mays’s fixer Nathan Detroit, who sheds beads while desperately attempting to host, against all the odds, the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York” while at the same time hiding the fact from Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years, played by Marisha Wallace.

Up for an Olivier for her predatory Ado Annie in Oklahoma! — the girl who can’t say no — Wallace could be up for another as Adelaide, the girl who can’t get commitment-phobe Nathan to say yes to marriage.

Meanwhile, Celinde Schoenmaker and Andrew Richardson make gorgeous leads as Salvation Army missionary Sarah and the sinner whose soul she attempts to save, Sky Masterson.

Everything in this show, which is mostly like standing in Times Square during rush hour, stands still for their duet If I Were A Bell, in which Sarah swoons on a high of love and pina coladas and is saved from gravity by Sky.

In the final marriage scene there is a typically Hytner-esque twist to their union. But from the orchestra looking down from the circle to the steam rising up from the depths, it is the ambition of the evening that astounds with the director’s first big musical in years.

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