Review by Daz Gale
Taking an undoubted classic and ripping up the rulebook on it is an almighty gamble but that’s exactly what has been done with the latest production Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. They have rolled the dice by using everybody’s favourite (or least favourite) word by turning this into an immersive show, but would lady luck be on their side or should they not have bothered rocking the boat?
Guys & Dolls was first seen on Broadway in 1950 and in the West End in 1953, with countless revivals in the decades since. The musical fable of Broadway, it is a mix of comedy and romance and tells the multiple stories of Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson as they approach relationships with love interests Miss Adelaide and Sister Sarah Brown, all the while trying to gamble illegally and avoid the police.
The rise in immersive experiences and Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club has led to an inevitable rise in shows hoping to follow the success A lot of shows have taken the liberty of billing themselves as immersive due to this and not all of them can claim to honestly be immersive. However, this is not an issue for Guys& Dolls which transports you to the streets of New York (and later, Havana) the moment you set foot inside the Bridge Theatres impressive space.
As well as reviewing the show, I will be talking about the experience itself as that is a big factor as to what made this evening so enjoyable (Look out for some tips when attending too). I was given the option of conventional seating where you can watch the action from the sidelines or a promenade ticket which would mean I would be standing around the stage while the action took place all around me. This was a no brainer of a decision for me – the harder decision was working out where to stand. This isn’t something I should have thought about for too long as you find yourself being moved around the theatre constantly as the stage continuously moves. This led for a unique experience which well and truly immersed you into the setting. From me and my partner being given hats on our arrival (We are easily pleased) to sitting on the stage at the beginning of act 2 to joining the cast dancing on stage in the finale, this was as immersive as it gets and dare I say, the best use of immersive theatre I have experienced personally.
I talked about the moving stage but words could never do justice to how intricate and clever this is. The transformations that constantly take place, allowing the audience to truly become part of their world is unrivalled in its innovation. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is completely ingenious in its meticulous and creative execution, creating something truly exceptional. If people raved about Rebecca Frecknall’s direction in the Cabaret revival, this takes that idea and kicks it up a gear to create something so unique and special, it needs to be seen to be believed.
A special mention has to go to the stage management and stage crew for all the (literal) moving parts they have to deal with. Not only do they need to set the scenes by moving props, they need to move the entire audience around, keeping everybody safe as areas of the stage rise suddenly. With nothing separating the audience from the cast and the stage itself, this is an area of the production that may be overlooked but really deserved to be commended for just how fantastically this was all done. Not only always managing to make us feel safe, they did this without taking us out of the moment and allowing us to remain completely immersed.
This production of Guys & Dolls is one where every element is absolutely spectacular. Bunny Christie’s set design is exquisite and full of details which come alive as the show progresses. Not the easiest of spaces to transform, the way a theatre in London Bridge can become New York one moment and Havana the next is a testament to the creatives involved. Equally fantastic is Paule Constable’s use of lighting while choreography from the legendary Arlene Phillips alongside James Cousin is every bit as breathtakingly brilliant as you would expect.
The music in Guys & Dolls has stood the test of time and here sounds as glorious as ever. Classics such as ‘Luck, Be A Lady’ and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ are performed with aplomb, sounding as good as ever before, if not better than ever. Musical supervision and arranements from Tom Brady and orchestrations from Charlie Rosen ensure these match the high quality of the rest of the production, while expert sound design from Paul Arditti effortlessly manages the unenviable task of keeping the quality up despite the challenges a space and set design such as this must have.
I've established that the production for this is pretty faultless, but what about the cast themselves? With some big names on board for this, expectations were high. I can tell you these expectations were not met… they were absolutely smashed! Daniel Mays may be best known for his TV roles but here he proves himself to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of musical theatre with a commanding and beautifully comic portrayal of Nathan Detroit. Having the audience in the palm of his hands, he delivers a performance that demands you always pay attention to him – even if somebody else is speaking.
Andrew Richardson is brilliant in his turn as Sky Masterson showing extreme versatility as his character transforms in unlikely ways. Effortlessly charismatic, he shows great rapport with every cast member he interacts with, particularly when it comes to his love interest. Celinde Schoenmaker has another opportunity to showcase her impressive talents with her tun as Sarah Brown. Always a reliable actress, she is as exquisite here as ever before, with her voice always sounding heavenly. Mark Oxtoby gets some great comic moments as Benny Southstreet, performing with a joy that will keep you grinning throughout, while Cameron Johnson is an undoubted highlight with his performance as Big Jule.
Marisha Wallace is an undeniable standout in her turn as Miss Adelaide. Full of sass and wit, Marisha plays the role with heart, tapping into the soul of what makes her character tick in a true masterclass performance. Showing impeccable comic timing, Marisha may well be delivering a career best with her completely faultless portrayal here (Not something I say lightly considering some of the roles she has played in the past). Hilarious and instantly loveable, Marishas performance truly is as good as it gets.
Cedric Neal has proved himself time and time again to be one of the greatest talents in the West End (I’m still not over his turn as Lola in Kinky Boots last year) and yet again he manages to absolutely steal the show. As Nicely-Nicely Johnson, he once again shows what a formidable talent he is with charisma and charm most people could only dream of having. It’s his performance on ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat’ which well and truly raises the roof in what was the undoubted highlight of the show. Every encore he gets is more than deserved, and each time he manages to up the ante further, proving once and for all there really is nobody out there doing it like he is.
While the option to watch from a conventional seat is here, if you are able to, I would thoroughly recommend getting a promenade ticket to really immerse yourself in the action. A few tips for the best possible experience – get there early to take it all in, if you leave the theatre in the interval, get back there in plenty of time or you will miss a huge surprise. Stand close to the stage if you can and prepare to move around throughout – you may also want to prepare to get wet at one point. With Guys & Dolls, you aren’t just getting a show – you are getting an experience. I’m pleased to say both are every bit as fantastic as each other.
When this production of Guys & Dolls was announced, I was slightly sceptical but very excited. When I heard whisperings of what was happening in the show and reactions from people at the first few shows, my excitement went into overload. There is always the danger a show such as this will never be able to live up to the hype – this was not a problem here.
Completely faultless, I struggle to think of another show I have seen as absolutely perfect as this production of Guys & Dolls is. From its world class cast, unique set design and incredible production value, this show truly is special. Bold in its choices, the gamble paid off as they have pushed the boundaries of what is capable in a theatrical production. Both a show and an experience in itself, this is a beautiful reminder of what can be achieved when the creative juices are flowing and really is the greatest example of the joy theatre can bring. My only complaint is I was unable to give them the standing ovation they deserves as I was already standing (What is the solution for that? Jumping?).
A strong contender for the best show of the year, you can bet on this production being decorated with awards and, hopefully, having a future life after this run. Absolutely perfect.
Guys & Dolls plays at the Bridge Theatre until 2nd September. Tickets from www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan