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Guys and Dolls review at Royal Albert Hall – ‘concert staging of a classic musical’

Adrian Lester in Guys and Dolls at Royal Albert Hall, London. Photo: Roy Tan
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The Royal Albert Hall has done musical spectaculars before. The 10th anniversary production of Les Mis, the 25th anniversary of Phantom, the 2006 production of Show Boat. But while this zip through Frank Loesser’s musical, in a reduced concert version by director/choreographer Stephen Mear, boasts a spectacular cast, the production itself is far from perfect.

For one thing, it’s difficult to keep up the pace in a space this large. Dialogue takes an age to reach around the hall and is delivered either too slowly, bringing things to near-halting levels, or too quickly, turning to unintelligible mush. The bass-less amplification in the Hall does the show no favours either.

A couple of the cast members nail it, though. Jason Manford is a decent Nathan Detroit, and his New Yoik accent is on point. Adrian Lester hits the right tempo as Sky Masterson, although he plays Sky too suave and restrained to really fill the hall. He’s also a bit serious in what is a very silly show. While it’s clear what he’s doing with this brooding deepness – showing that he’s fallen in love fast and hard – his restraint becomes quite marked alongside other more unrestrained ensemble members, such as Meow Meow’s Miss Adelaide, Lara Pulver’s Sarah Brown and Clive Rowe’s Nicely Nicely Johnson.

Bigger and broader interpretations of character work better in a space like this, as do the full-on dance and chorus scenes – Mear has added the Crapshooters’ Ballet back in to the concert version, and his choreography is excellent, making shifting, fluid shapes of the ensemble.

Meow Meow is a fantastic Adelaide. She ramps up the cutesy coating, with steely determination beneath. She manages to sustain a nasal, hoarse voice for Adelaide’s Lament (“Just from waiting around / For that little band of gold / A person can develop a cold”) yet still hits every note in her six numbers.

Pulver makes for a straight-backed, straitlaced missionary, hands clasped across her front, and Rowe, reprising the Nicely Nicely Johnson role 21 years after he won an Olivier for it, absolutely rocks the Hall with Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.

The cast had only had two weeks to rehearse, and there are only three performances, but it’s still a shame to see a couple of slightly phoned-in performances. Stephen Mangan plays the narrator for this semi-staged version and, although he’s usually a brilliant actor, he’s pretty lacklustre here. Partly that’s the role, existing only to describe the location of each scene and introduce characters, something that’s unnecessary even in the reduced version, but Mangan’s performance also feels half-hearted.

The concert version has its benefits: it showcases song after blinding song, and is a reminder of the genius of Loesser’s score.

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Adrian Lester and Jason Manford star in a less than spectacular concert version of Frank Loesser’s classic musical