Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.
Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.
For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.
Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.
The main audience draw for this show is clearly going to be Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose (it didn't surprise me that the audience rose to their feet on her curtain call). Staunton gives a fine performance, particularly in her breakdown in the final scenes where she also rises vocally to the challenges of Rose's Turn having, I thought, perhaps been saving herself a little earlier on. But whether it's the part, or the way Staunton plays it, she left me unmoved. In fact frequently earlier on I sat there wishing that Pulver or the hapless Herbie (Kevin Whately) would stand up to her and say no. Her initial decision to turn Pulver into a stripper made me seethe. There's obviously got to be something about her that causes Whately and, especially, Pulver, to keep forgiving her for being impossible but I'm not sure that Staunton wholly finds it.
For me the outstanding performance of the evening was Lara Pulver's Louise. I've seen Pulver a number of times in musicals and have been consistently impressed, but her performance here is really stunning. It's one of those parts which requires a complex process of transformation through the evening, from rather withdrawn, bookish figure early on, through the quietly strong daughter who stays to the stage queen of the penultimate sequence. Pulver transforms effortlessly. She also keeps expanding the part beyond what is strictly written down. If you see it, watch her in the birthday party scene and during the dull musical number that follows. There's something heartbreaking about the way she doesn't join in with everyone else's excitement at being booked on the Orpheum circuit. Similarly her face and manner bear watching as Dan Burton's Tulsa shows off his new act. It's impossible quite to lose the feeling that she has dreamed that he might fall in love with her, and to feel a blow to her when he leaves with her sister June, though none of this is explicit in the script. These moments add weight to what is on paper her eventual triumph in becoming Gypsy Rose Lee. Pulver gets no script space for reflection on what price might have been paid for this, but her performance somehow manages to convey some sense of it all the same. Much of this is understated, but that is often the mark of true theatrical greatness. Her performance is worth the price of admission alone.
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, and too long to mention here, but includes particularly nice appearances from Natalie Woods as the naïve Agnes, Julie Legrand as the Momma Rose'd Miss Cratchitt and Anita Louise Combe as Tessie Tura. The band under Nicholas Skilbeck gives a fine account of the score, though I could have wished some audience members nearby had not felt it necessary to talk during the Overture. Unlike in Guys and Dolls the orchestra is in the pit at front of stage and this makes an appreciable difference to the sound quality. I can see this probably isn't practical if the show has large scale chorus numbers, but it's a pity because the sound is so much better in this arrangement. After Carlos Acosta's disappointing choreography for Guys and Dolls it's a relief to have Stephen Mear back on duty whose work is, as usual, magnificent. Jonathan Kent's staging copes effectively with the huge number of scene changes – my only quibble would be that the lift is perhaps used a little too often for exits.
Overall this is a pretty special evening and one which richly deserves a London transfer. In the meantime, just in case this doesn't happen, you're strongly urged to get down to Chichester before it closes. Lara Pulver's performance, especially, is unmissable.
Housekeeping Note: I daresay not many audience members do travel from London for Chichester shows, but it would be nice if the House would try and arrange matters so that there is a reasonable gap between curtain down and the last train back to Victoria. Arriving at the station with five minutes to spare after a bit of a rush across the centre of town is not the most pleasant way to end an evening.