January. Never my favourite month, so this year I took pre-emptive action. I used to go to the theatre regularly – in fact I used to be a theatre reviewer for my local paper, eons ago – but hadn’t been for ages. I miss it, so I booked some shows.
I began the New Year with a completely joyous experience. It’s pretty hard not to love Guys and Dolls. This classic Noo Yawk musical of gamblers and their loves has some belting songs – Love Be A Lady Tonight, and Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat being absolute favourites – and swings along through a series of snappy, witty scenes. There’s none of that awkward ‘oh we have to hang around talking a bit until we can do the big number’ feel you get with some musicals.
The Savoy Theatre is hosting a revival of the Chichester Festival theatre’s production, and it’s pretty much perfect. The male leads – David Haig as hapless Nathan Detroit and Jamie Parker as high rolling Sky Masterson – brought a real emotional charge, as well as peerless singing. The ladies’ parts are less rounded, but Sophie Thompson belted through Miss Adelaide, balancing comedy and pathos. The big numbers were all you could ask of them, especially Gavin Spokes’ barnstorming version of Sit Down.
Next up was Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s late plays, and not one I’d seen before. I’d not been to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, either, so this was a real treat. The theatre is intimate and beautiful, a little jewel box of a place, glimmering with candlelight. The play itself is a strange one; full of cruelty and pain, resolving through comedy among a blizzard of revelations and unmaskings.
You find yourself wondering why on earth Shakespeare’s men are so hopeless at marriage. Either protesting their wives to be beyond temptation, or discarding them on the flimsiest evidence of infidelity, they obsess on their chastity as if no other quality was worth mentioning. Posthumous, the so-called hero of Cymbeline, is an especially unpleasant figure, dispatching orders to his servant to finish off his wife, after placing bets on her virtue.
The production felt fresh, the performances lively and it was fascinating to see the theatre’s devices – trapdoors, candelabras, flying gods – demonstrated in the way they must once have been used. I confess, though, I cannot like the play.
Finally, a play I only just caught – Mr Foote’s Other Leg, a wonderful tragi-comedy played to perfection with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, in a limited run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The play is erudite, extremely funny, very rude in places and heartbreakingly sad in others. Written by Ian Kelly (who appears as a hilariously languid Prince George) and directed by Richard Eyre, it tells the story of an irrepressible Georgian theatrical impressario, who becomes as famous and then as infamous as Oscar Wilde, for much the same reasons.
It’s theatrical, knowing and energetic, and the cast appear to be having the time of their lives. I’m so glad I squeezed it into my theatrical January.