All hail Madame Rose

Chichester Festival Theatre - Gypsy title image

Chichester Festival Theatre – Gypsy title image

Back from a weekend in delightful Chichester – a place I’ll definitely be back to and not only for the wonderful hospitality of the friend we were visiting. Our first, flying visit was memorable not least for an absolutely sensational performance of the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical, Gypsy.

Jonathan Kent used the thrust stage to great effect, and from our £15 side stalls seats (stunning value!) we were able to enjoy the show with relatively little compromise. It was fast-paced, sassy and touching. A lovely transition, mid-dance number, between the ‘Baby June/Baby Louise’ and the older daughters was well-executed and gave comic effect to the tiresome sense of the poor things having been doing the same old shtick for years.

As Louise, Lara Pulver betrayed just the gentlest of hints of the feisty, resourceful burlesque queen that was to come. When transformed, she held the stage with tremendous presence as if to the manner born. For Baby June my programme doesn’t distinguish whether it was Elise Blake or Georgia Pemberton, but the young actress managed to capture the perfect balance of true talent refracted through the horror-inducing lens of a child act on a vaudeville stage.

Kevin Whately was Herbie, and he grew on me, but I fear I had his performances as Lewis on Morse clouding my judgment and I struggled with both his American accent and the ‘fit’ with the role. In act 2, Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand brought the house down in big Broadway fashion as the trio of ‘no talent, but with gimmick’ strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra (“I’m electrifyin’, and I ain’t even tryin’…”) Together with an energetic company of dancers, gamely recreating variants of the same tired act in the different theatres but always with irrepressible verve and comic haplessness, the dazzle of Broadway seemed never far away.

Which brings us to the leading lady. Although this is ostensibly the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, it is her terrifyingly driven mother, Rose, that is the show’s undoubted star. Imelda Staunton absolutely tore the stage up. Her act 1 closer, Everything’s coming up roses, was a dangerously on-the-edge affair: a study of a driven woman coming apart at the seams in her manic determination to hold it all together after being deserted by the daughter who is her principal concern. Staunton’s timing was impeccable, her singing absolutely persuasive in having moments of beauty and poise to counterpoint the full-on, belt-it-to-the-back-of-the-gallery numbers. She never flagged for a moment, delivered her one-liners with precision and generally remained in utter command of the stage. I’d find it hard to believe there could be a more complete performance as Mama Rose. It’s a music theatre role that has few equals in terms of its requirement for assurance, confidence, and a skilful sense of theatre to deliver it effectively – and it was most certainly delivered effectively here. Not one to be forgotten.

Nicholas Skilbeck led a bright, crisp well-articulated reading of the score, signalling from the first notes that this was Broadway transplanted into West Sussex. A note about the mic’ing of the singers and orchestra as well: from where we were seated it was well done and avoided muddiness or ‘hearing double’ – no mean feat, based on some other experiences.

I could watch it every night for the rest of this week, if it weren’t for work, and that’s as long as it is still on for. For God’s sake, someone get this show, this cast, and most of all this leading lady into the West End. Sensational. I smiled all the way back up the A3.

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