Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls has taken nearly 17 months to reach the West End since its premiere in August 2014, but it’s been worth the wait, even if – in the end – it pales in comparison with the Chichester production of Gypsy that it has replaced at the Savoy.
Both are shows from Broadway’s golden age of the 1950s – Guys and Dolls from 1950, Gypsy from 1959 – and are classics both of their time and of all time. Yet Guys and Dolls, at least over here in London, was the far better known show, with famous revivals at the National in 1982 (itself revived again in 1996) and in 2005, while last year’s outing for Gypsy was its first in the West End since it was previously belatedly staged there for the first time in 1973.
Gypsy also paints a more gritty portrait of a seriously damaged woman playing out her thwarted show business ambitions with her daughters in the dying days of the vaudeville circuit, while Guys and Dolls does something altogether more scintillating but more lightweight: it provides a colourful cartoon version of Broadway away from its theatres, instead set in its underground gambling dens and hostess bars. Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancee who dates the commitment-phobic crap game fixer Nathan Detroit, works at the Hotbox, where her strip routine to A Bushel and a Peck is not all that distant from Gypsy Rose Lee’s burlesque turn in Gypsy.
It’s no wonder that Imelda Staunton has played both Momma Rose and was once a Miss Adelaide (at the NT). Now it’s the turn of Sophie Thompson to bring her own expressive comic features and swooping vocal mannerisms to the role. There’s rather too much gurning to her performance for my taste, but the audience around me lapped it up.
The performances of its three other principals are far more successful. David Haig, new to the company as Nathan Detroit, has just the right combination of bouncy charm, desperation and mischievousness. Jamie Parker, as professional gambler Sky Masterson, is an effortless crooner, while Siubhan Harrison is an earnest mission-doll Sarah who melts delightfully (and lets her hair down, in every sense) when love strikes her unexpectedly.
There’s also some sensational support from a scene-stealing Gavin Spokes as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, nicely-nicely stopping the show with Sit Down Your’e Rockin’ the Boat, and Ian Hughes as the harried Benny Southstreet. Nic Greenshields is a formidable Big Jule and Neil McCaul is a charmingly understated Scottish accented Arvide Abernathy, bringing tremendous warmth to More I Cannot Wish You.
As marshalled by director Gordon Greenberg, the show looks, sounds and dances up a storm, thanks respectively to Peter McKintosh’s fan-shaped neon backdrop, Gareth Valentine’s brassy band and Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta’s fleet-footed choreography.
The show is treating the West End a bit like a sit-down stop-off as part of a larger tour that began before it came to town and will continue again after it leaves it. But it’s very welcome, however brief the visit.