Guys and Dolls ★★★★★

The all-immersive revival of the deservedly popular musical marches on, with a magical mix of new and established cast members

As I wrote a year ago, when I first had the unforgettable experience of standing amongst fellow audience members, “‘Immersive’ and ‘moving’ are adjectives that one might use figuratively to describe a theatrical experience. I’m using them literally here.” For my second outing to Nick Hytner’s frankly addictive production, I chose once again to stand so that “as a promenader following the action around the ever-shifting levels on the interconnected hydraulic platforms of designer Bunny Christie’s flexible staging, I was very much immersed”.

Frank Loesser’s ‘Musical Fable of Broadway’ with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on the stories and characters of much-loved story writer Damon Runyon. His name has become an adjective – Runyonesque – describing his kaleidoscopic tales with their quirky characters set in New York in the inter-war period (Runyon died in 1946). The Big Apple is conjured by neon street signs, ads, pedestrian crossings and street furniture, illuminated by Paule Constable’s versatile lighting. The 14-strong band conducted by Tom Brady is enthroned above, framed by theatrical lightbulbs and forging a real connection with both cast and audience.

The company erupts onstage in a burst of colour: the dolls in smart period hats and gloves, the guys sporting caps reminiscent of Peaky Blinders (costumes Bunny Christie & Deborah Andrews). It’s not a menacing, 20th-century ‘gangs of New York’ but exuberant comedy as the roll call of hopeful but inept gamblers, with their fun monikers like Nicely-Nicely Johnson (new-to-the-cast Jonathan Andrew Hume, a comic human dynamo), nicknamed for his catch phrase, shout the odds as they seek a secret venue for their illicit crap game.

Nicely-Nicely’s boss is even more inveterate gambler Nathan Detroit (Owain Arthur, another newcomer). He has a roving eye, not for the girls, but for an unlikely bet he might win – did kosher cake emporium Mindy’s sell more cheesecake or strudel today? – against rival young Sky Masterson (George Ioannides – angelic-voiced and devilishly handsome).

Arthur’s Nathan has just the right mix of world-weary chutzpah and expertise dodging the ball, whether it’s the cops chasing his illegal crap game, or his fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (a stunning turn from huge-voiced Timmika Ramsay). Adelaide is the top attraction at the aptly-named Hot Box Club, where the breathtaking dancing is of its time: scantily clad lovelies with suggestive moves (choreography Arlene Phillips and James Cousins). Ramsay and Arthur make a sparring couple so comfortably uncomfortable with each other that it’s easy to imagine they’ve been engaged for 14 years!

 Into this situation arrives the ‘Sally Army’ from the Save-a-Soul Mission, powering through the groundlings to stirring marching band music, still led to glory by original cast member, Dutch-born Celinde Schoenmaker’s wonderfully assertive, no-nonsense, Sergeant Sarah Brown. 

So it’s back to the search for a venue for that illegal crap game, complicated by the arrival of sinister gangster Big Jule (Cameron Johnson continuing to live up to his moniker, his voice even deeper and more sinister than I remember), brandishing his ‘spotless’ dice. He calls the shots – and the imaginary numbers – as the gamblers pray ‘Luck be a Lady’.

Nathan compromises Sky into betting on whether he can entice strait-laced Sarah into flying to Havana for lunch in exchange for supplying her mission with “one dozen sinners” for the visit of General Cartwright (newcomer to the cast Tori Scott, at once authoritative and empathetic). What could possibly go wrong?

All this is expertly marshalled with impressive flair by director Nicholas Hytner. Every musical number is beautifully imagined. Highlights include Hume’s Nicely-Nicely in the proselytising wonder, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’. When Nathan procrastinates yet again, he spars with Adelaide in ‘Sue Me’, a duet with two opposing rhythms, one for each singer. Adelaide’s jerky, fast-paced indignation is accompanied by the neon ‘walk’ signs urgently flashing; while Nathan’s slow ardent pleas are accompanied by the calm red ‘don’t walk’. Finally Adelaide and Sergeant Sarah commiserate as they feistily resolve to ‘Marry the Man Today’ and reform them later. 

It remains a rollicking, high-energy must-see (again!) triumph. Roll on a second extension this September with an equally exciting third cast!

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Guys and Dolls runs until Saturday 31 August 2024. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £19.50. Bridge Theatre, SE1 2SG.


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