A SHIPLOAD OF DELIGHT
What can I say? Daniel Evans’ production is delicious, it’s de-lovely, a de-lirious succession of treats. There is always a fizzing joyful absurdity about Cole Porter’s 1934 shipboard musical – its book largely by P.G. Wodehouse, no less – and Evans and Sheffield Theatres have done it more than justice.
Not one minute passes without something visually or comically fabulous. Often, in even the best musicals, there is a scene or a number where you lose focus for a moment and think “Oh right, we’ll just get through this…”. But this screwball romance of gangways and gangsters, stowaways and star- crossed lovers and high-kicks hits you with one gleeful surprise after another. We may know three-quarters of the numbers too well, but they come up fresh as daisies. Sight gags are plentiful and brilliant (who does not find their life enhanced by watching a panicked gangster shove a Pekinese down his trousers?). As for the spoken wisecracks, a good few of them had the audience actually shrieking (“Iiquor has never touched my lips!””You know a short cut?”).
Actually, even the line “I never knew you were Chinese” just about finished off half my row. As did Erma’s announcement that she had sailors waiting for her in the “fuc’s’le”. Spoken with just enough ambiguity to keep it a family show while causing adults to choke happily on their Maltesers.
But a great deal of the wit is just where it should be: in Alistair David’s choreography and Nigel Lilley’s sharp, startling, diverse musical arrangement. Every number is meticulously acted as well as danced: in one striking moment Hope and Billy’s sentimental duet “De-lovely” is suddenly surrounded by a crazy ballet in 30’s swimwear (the costumes are wonderful), and as the cast surge and sway around them the central pair manage to look – as you would – baffled by it. Even funnier – achingly so – is the ensemble of sailors singing about girls ashore, in a dance so camply precise, so tight-white-trouseredly effete, that it is clear they really needn’t bother to wait for the lasses ashore. As for “Blow , Gabriel blow!” Reno’s revival meeting moves from jazz-dance to clapping, leaping, tapping, Bob-Fosse-style doll-like jerking, finally to very sexy lapdancing and a crashing finale fit to blow the roof off.
If the production itself is the star, that is not to denigrate the players. Debbie Kurup has a gamine elegance and growing vigour as Reno, Matt Rawle dead-on light-comedy timing as Billy, and Hugh Sachs’ portly Moonface blissfully takes the angst out of gangster with that glorious Bluebird song. Tweet-tweet. Indeed one of the pleasures of the show is that all the principals get a hell of a number all to themselves (not least Stephen Matthews doing his gypsy number in sock-suspenders, and Alex Young relishing Buddie Beware).
But enough of this. I”m distracting you from buying a ticket. Let me just add that what Sheffield has done is to unleash on a national provincial tour a really big show: elegantly set, wittier and better than many in the West end (it beats the 2002 Trevor Nunn revival for inventiveness and vigour). And crowds will see this glorious excellence at far below West End prices. I call that a result.
box office 0844 871 7646 to 7 Feb
touring on to 10 October nationwide – Aylesbury next, then Stoke….