views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Fantasticks
Jermyn Street Theatre
23rd July 2013

★★★★☆

Gavin James as El Gallo

Photography supplied by the Rose Bridge Theatre Company

In fair - well, probably not Verona, just some unspecified town - a pair of star cross'd lovers - or at least, lovers who believe themselves to be star cross'd - are quite fantastic. Fathers Bellomy (Brian McCann) and Hucklebee (Tim Walton) have decided the best way to get their slightly simple children hitched to each other is to persuade them that they're tragically caught in the middle of a family feud. And so Luisa (Emma Harrold) and Matt (James Irving) find themselves in love, parted by a wall seemingly constructed for no other purpose than to keep them apart.

The Fantasticks is an entertaining, if slightly odd musical. The first half is self-contained, it has a start, a middle and a - happy - end. The signposting of the interval comes from the original book, the writers clearly recognising the potential for hapless theatre goers to walk out, not realising there is more to come. That's not to say the second half doesn't add anything, it's very much a case of taking the red pill - it's an alternative and less rosy ending, which adds a bit of welcome grit to an otherwise sickly Disney piece. As both the narrator and bandit-for-hire El Gallo, Gavin James is largely to credit for bringing the balance to the second half.

Originally written in 1960 by Tom Jones (not that one), as well as the book has aged, the same can't be said for some of the lyrics. But the songs are undeniably skilfully supported from the orchestra and Harvey Schmidt's music. Lara Somogyi on harp, David Talisman on percussion and Theophile Dorges on bass, led by Simon Burrow on piano - all work seamlessly together from opposite sides of the stage.

For instance, It Depends on What You Pay involves Bellomy negotiating with El Gallo as to how much it will cost for El Gallo to pretend to attempt to "rape" his daughter. The meaning here is classical, it's an abduction rather than anything more sinister, but the use of language is slightly jarring to a modern ear. Some productions have written out the word altogether, but here, director Neil Robinson has decided to hold true to the original, a brave, but ultimately correct decision. When it comes to taking offence, it's important to consider the intention. If a word had no malice when it was first used, is it fair to blame it decades on for an evolution in language? All things considered, probably not.

Less controversial, but more brilliant is Hucklebee and Bellomy's duet Never Say No, in which they lament the bizarre things their children do, just for the sake of being rebellious. Walton and McCann's straight delivery and baffled expressions are responsible for making the punchlines hilarious.

Emma Harrold and James Irving as Luisa and Matt

Photography supplied by the Rose Bridge Theatre Company

The fathers' deliberately hammy, overblown style is surpassed only by the melodrama of their children. Harrold plays Luisa as a princess of a sixteen-year-old, her fascination with herself verging on the deranged. And Irving's older boy-next-door is just as self-absorbed.

The leading actors are ably supported by a number of others. El Gallo's mock abduction is staged with a little help from jobbing actors Henry (Seamus Newham) and Mortimer (James Weal). Henry's acting career has seen better days, and his sad sack character both generates laughs and tugs at our heartstrings a little. Mortimer's 'skill' for dying repeatedly on stage, to complement whatever part Henry takes, helps keep the tone light throughout.

But the ultimate underdog is the Mute (Greg Page), whose role of passing props to the actors is taken even further and turned into that of a stressed out stage manager. The Mute is behind schedule, he's tired, hot, hungry and probably shouldn't have bothered getting out of bed. He may be a very minor character but this version, tweaked by Robinson and executed easily by Page, adds a certain Britishness to the musical, endearing it to us instantly.

It may not be particularly well-known this side of the Pond, but The Fantasticks - or at least, this adaptation - is all kinds of parody wrapped up into one delicious treat. As the damnable earworm from the play's Try To Remember goes, we recommend you "follow, follow, follow"Rose Bridge's foray into musical theatre.

The Fantasticks ran from 23rd to 27th July 2013 at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)



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