IT DON’T GET BETTER THAN THIS…
Is there any odder opening line to a big musical number than “Have an egg-roll, Mr Goldstone”? Is there any dryer account of the emotional tangle of mothers and daughters, showbiz and ambition than this Laurents / Styne / Sondheim show? Will Jonathan Church’s Chichester never give over turning out productions so fabulous that they transfer and bring London to its feet? Is three standing ovations even enough? And is there any actress more heroically accomplished, more vividly alive, more formidable in song , speech and silence, more superhuman yet more likeable than Imelda Staunton?
Questions, questions. Jonathan Kent’s production thrilled Chichester last year. It is, if anything, even more kaleidoscopically irresistible set in the Savoy’s weary gilt-and -velvet. Posh enough, yet retaining a tang of the ‘30s vaudeville houses through which Mama Rose pushes her troupe across Depression America, hectoring towards stardom the favoured daughter June and dogsbody Louise. From the moment Staunton storms up the aisle brandishing a lapdog and shoving other children away from blocking Baby June’s squeal ’n splits routine, we are there. Anthony Ward’s sets, swift-moving and unfussy, take us to squalid digs, looming backstage barrenness and luscious limelight. Stephen Mear’s choreography wittily evokes all levels of aptitude: baby June’s robotic precision and eyes-n-teeth smile, Louise’s willing awkwardness, the boy dancers’ romping amateurism morphing into their accomplished, balletic or tapping adult selves. Character blooms in every step of the jaunty desperate family dance when Mama’s strategy has stranded them broke in Texas with the “Toreadorable” troupe; there’s the glorious cow, and at last the three strippers. Especially Louise Gold’s Amazonian centurion, grumpily demonstrating how to bump it with a trumpet.
The joy of Gypsy is that, set in the dying throes of vaudeville, it can twist in a moment from some gorgeously entertaining absurdity or repartee to a bleakness of poverty, delusion and betrayal. All the cast give the serious emotion full weight: there are silences as memorable as the big numbers. There’s Rose’s utter stillness as she reads the letter from the defecting June, then Louise and Herbie frozen in turn as she rallies and turns the beam of her lethal attention on the remaining daughter. Lara Pulver returns as a fine-drawn Louise, touchingly quiet and tomboyish until her wild final blossoming – elegantly spanning four costumes and risingly glamorous locations – as Gypsy Rose Lee. Peter Davison is Herbie, giving the lightly written part real dignity and heft.
For all the glee, and our mass inability to resist leaping to our feet at the end of the two biggest Mama Rose numbers, it is not a show you leave without sober reflection. My daughter, fresh from reading Jung, quoted him – “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically…on children than the unlived life of the parent” . Its rueful insights are perennial; Rose’s determination to keep control rather than marry is pure feminism (“After three husbands it takes an awful lotta butter to get you back in the frying pan”). And her ultimate she-Lear rage, Staunton unforgettably vulnerable as she stands alone against blackness and shakes her booty in furious flirtation and storming at fate mirrors with sharp awkwardness an even more modern phenomenon. Women still wince at middle-age and missed chances, envy daughters, claw towards their own limelight. Even – as tiny Staunton looks up at the statuesque Pulver and appropriates her sable stole – deludedly purr how handy it is that they can wear the same clothes. Ouch.
box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 18 July