Guys and Dolls

Feb 11 2016 | By More

★★☆☆☆   Inconsistent entertainment

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 9 – Sat 13 Feb 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Spirited but patchy and somewhat confused, the Edinburgh University Footlights production of Guys and Dolls at the Church Hill Theatre is enjoyable but falls short of what it might be.

The musical is justly celebrated, with its story of gamblers Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson and the unfortunate women who love them – nightclub singer Miss Adelaide and Salvationist Sgt Sarah Brown.

The cast of Guys and Dolls, Photo: EU Footlights

Mae Hearons with chorus members. Photo: EU Footlights

The collision of such different worlds in a stylised New York with its own vocabulary and mores, not to mention a parade of memorable numbers, is always at least great fun, with Frank Loesser’s songs illuminating a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on stories by Damon Runyon.

There is enjoyment here, but the resources on offer, not to mention the quality of those involved, could have been better used. The result falls below the standard of recent Footlights productions.

The overture signals that there may be a lack of subtlety and cohesion. The sound is unbalanced and too loud, drawing attention to the fact that the players are not as in synch as they might be. Harsh, unsubtle lighting, often directed straight into the audience’s eyes, is accompanied by a smoke machine in overdrive, rendering much of the stage invisible to the front six rows and causing the occasional coughing fit.

Hopes that this over-exuberance with effects will quickly settle down are soon dashed. The garish lighting still causes audience members to shield their eyes on occasion, while that smoke machine is used in virtually every scene, filling New York street and Havana nightclub alike with impenetrable clouds, provoking annoyance rather than evoking atmosphere.

different trajectories

If this was part of some grand scheme to assault the audience’s senses, some Theatre of Cruelty-derived aesthetic, it would at least make sense. However, other than the Crapshooter’s Ballet, an effectively staged dance scene that does have genuine atmosphere, the rest of the action is straightforward and conventional.

An overarching plan from director Lucy Evans would be welcome, as different elements of the production are heading on different trajectories. Nothing is terrible, but there is a lack of attention to detail, and a subsequent accumulation of small errors of judgement.

At times it lacks guidance and verges on the apologetic. Grace Dickson’s choreography can be inventive and thoughtful, as shown by the impressive sequences featuring the Hotbox nightclub dancers. However, the opening number is indicative of the show’s problems. Vastly ambitious, the movement looks under-rehearsed – and, as happens with chorus numbers throughout the production, the lyrics of Fugue for Tinhorns are impossible to comprehend, with togetherness lacking and the band overpowering the singers.

Some highly creditable individual performances do emerge. Mae Hearons (Miss Adelaide) is tuneful and funny, lighting up the stage whenever she appears. Ellie Millar’s Sarah Brown is similarly accomplished, with a terrific voice and spot-on comic timing, with her If I Were a Bell being particularly good.

The trouble with such talent being on display is that it shows up some of the shortcomings of the rest of the production.

carefully cultivated exasperation

There are quite a few interesting gender reassignments in the cast – Sarah’s grandfather Arvide becomes her grandmother, while Lieutenant Brannigan of the NYPD and Chicago mobster Big Jule are now female. These are all well enough done – Tilly Bartholomew’s Arvide has a solemn grace, Lila Pitcher’s Jule grows in stature and menace, and Vasia Passaris (Lt Brannigan) has a carefully cultivated exasperation. However, it seems to be a case of faute de mieux, as there is an obvious shortage of male cast members, with those who are on display not always distinguishing themselves.

Oliver Barker’s Sky Masterson has a strong stage presence, especially when he abandons the Presleyish curled lip he overuses at first, but his singing does not match up to his acting, or to Millar’s huge voice. Nevertheless, he has just about enough pizzazz to carry off Luck, Be a Lady successfully.

Tom Whiston (Nathan Detroit) has potential. There are genuine possibilities for humour in his interactions with Miss Adelaide, not least because of the huge disparity in height, but these are squandered by comparative diffidence.

There is a similar lack of conviction with all of the male performers, who never convince as hard-bitten gangsters as a result. Adam Makepeace (Nicely Nicely Johnson) can certainly do the song and dance bit, coming into his own leading Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat, when he looks considerably more at home than he does as a street hustler.

He is not the only one who seems unsure of what to do occasionally, in a production that is not particularly bad, but suffers from too little focus, too little preparation and too little reflection.

Running time 2 hours 55 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 February 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat 2.30 pm

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