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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2004

The National Theatre's summer musical for 2004 is an unqualified winner. They've revived one of the very best of all comic musicals, and it is a hoot and a half from start to finish.

Even without the sprightly music and witty lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (written before he became operatically ambitious and - dare I say it? - occasionally a wee bit pretentious), the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would be one of the funniest farces ever.

Piecing together bits of a half-dozen classic Roman comedies, Shevelove and Gelbart created the ultimate fast-moving comedy of lies, intrigues and thinking-on-one's-feet. And the fact that the characters pause every once in a while to sing is pure bonus.

In order to gain his freedom, a wily slave must help his young master get the girl. But she's a courtesan promised to a general, and in the escalating scheming the girl somehow thinks the hero's father is the general, the father thinks she's the maid, the general thinks the brothel keeper is a leper, another slave pretends to be the girl, a couple of magic potions get involved, and an old man runs seven times around the seven hills of Rome in hopes of finding his long-lost children.

I've actually left a lot out, but you get the idea. What starts off as a simple bit of trickery gets ever more involved as new lies have to be invented on the spot and the wrong people kept from meeting each other. And in the middle of it all, they sing.

Director Edward Hall, up to now one of our most impressive young Shakespearean directors, proves totally at home in the realm of musical farce, keeping everything moving as fast as possible, and even managing to anchor the whole hot air balloon in enough of a hint of reality to keep it from floating away altogether.

Just about every star who has played the slave Pseudolus, from Zero Mostel through Frankie Howerd to Whoopie Goldberg, has made him something of a larger-than-life cartoon. But Desmond Barrit, himself an accomplished Shakespearean, manages to make him real without losing a bit of the funniness.

From the moment he sings one of his first songs, a paean to the prospect of being free, this Pseudolus is established as a man with real feelings, and from then on Barrit somehow makes his wildest inventions, classic doubletakes and frantic actions all remain just barely within the boundaries of the possible and realistic.  And far from spoiling the farce, that enriches it immensely.

This anchor in reality is shared with Vince Leigh as the young lover, who comes across as less of a ninny than others have made him, simply because he has the good sense to rely on this clever Pseudolus, and it frees up the rest of the cast to play their roles as broadly as the farce will bear.

Caroline Sheen's heroine, described in one of the songs as having only one talent, being lovely, is the essence of air-headed blonde. Sam Kelly's father is dirty old man personified when he isn't being henpecked husband personified. Philip Quast's general is a walking legend-in-his-own-mind. And Hamish McColl as the fellow slave who is Pseudolus' unwilling second banana and stooge, almost eclipses memories of the great Jack Gilford as the pure essence of panic.

And then there are the songs. From Comedy Tonight, one of the greatest opening numbers in the history of the Broadway musical, through the show-stopping Everybody Ought To Have A Maid, to the somehow simultaneously sweet and funny ballad Lovely, this is Sondheim at play, and you'd have to go back to the days of Cole Porter to find lyrics as clever set to melodies as hummable.

Can you possibly need any more reason to see this winner? Well, it's part of the National Theatre's second Travelex-sponsored cheap-seat summer, with most seats only 10 and none higher than 25. 


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - National 2004