EVERYTHING COMES UP ROSES FOR THIS ONE. OH YES.
It is not often in a big musical that you remember the silences: the pin-drop, tense waits. But then, Gypsy was no run-of-the-mill musical, even in the golden age. In most shows the moment when the thwarted, ambition-crazed stage mother Rose cries “Everyone needs something impossible to hope for” should make her a feelgood heroine, a follower of her star, or at least a sad victim. Not a deluded, irresistible engine of family destruction.
But in Jonathan Kent’s superb, tense, funny and melancholy production Imelda Staunton both grips us in her headlong pursuit of showbiz fame for her children, and shakes us in those few deep silences. Her alarming stillness as she reads the letter telling her that the favoured Baby June has escaped her grip makes more violent the explosion when ,like a heat-seeking missile, she turns to her dowdier daughter Louise and cries “I made her – and I will make you!”. The audience actually gasps, even though as loving aficionados of this extraordinary chronicle, we knew that Mama Rose is about to launch into the enormous Act 1 closer, that hymn to dangerous ambition, “Everything’s coming up roses!”.
Staunton was last on this stage – and also singing Sondheim lyrics – in Kent’s equally magnificent Sweeney Todd. But that moment alone tops her Olivier-winning Mrs Lovett. She hurtles at it, jumps in frenzy, claps violently like an out-of-control clockwork toy, filling the immense theatre as if she was standing a foot in front of each of us, forcing us against our will to seek the evanescent goal of stardom. It’s like that all through: stubborn craziness veiling vulnerability, envy, fear of defeat. She is magnificent from the first moment when she erupts through the stalls clutching a terrier and harassing Uncle Jocko to give her daughters top billing . She’s all the Mama Rose that the show’s creators – Laurents and Styne and Sondheim – could have dreamed of back in 1959.
She is not its only jewel. Kent’s production is finely judged, trimmed a little of the show’s sprawl, staged with minimal fuss, the theatre’s new machinery delivering interiors for boarding-houses, dressing-rooms and atmospheric, looming backstage flies. Stephen Mear’s choreography is as witty as ever, expressing all the nuances: the half-baked performances of Mama Rose’s touring troupe, the cheerfully hopeless family ensembles with good old Herbie, and – when Lara Pulver’s gentle undervalued Louise emerges as Gypsy Rose Lee – her gradual transformation from terror to extravagantly brittle flamboyance. Pulver carries it brilliantly. As for Staunton’s own final enraged aria of thwarted ambition, the mixture of extreme foxy moves and sudden lapses into the diffident stumping of the middle-aged matron is both funny and profoundly moving.
What else? Everything, really. Kevin Whateley, beloved as Detective-Inspector Lewis, deploys his gift for intelligent rueful likeability as Herbie (and he can sing, never knew that),. As the child June at the beginning, Georgia Pemberton on first-night duty delivered some atrociously brilliant high-kicks, cartwheels and earsplittingly shrill Violet-Elizabeth-Bottery before being artfully morphed into her adult self (Gemma Sutton) by way of strobing lights and hurtling ensemble dancers. The three Act 2 burlesque strippers are pretty unforgettable too: Anita Louise Combe with some nicely dirty ballet moves (don’t sacrifice your sacro, working in the back row!) Julie Legrande with flashing tits and pubes, and Louise Gold towering muscular and ferocious in her centurion kit and bugle (“if you’re going to bump it, do it with a trumpet”).
Sorry, can’t stop quoting Sondheim lines it’s an illness. But if you can wrestle, wangle or seductively pole-dance a ticket off someone, this one’s well worth sacrificing your sacro for.