Aphra Behn's Restoration comedy is of more than just historical interest. Yes, she's the first noted female playwright, but as importantly, she's up there with her contempories like Wycherly and Congreve, with a very individual voice. "The Rover" tells the common tale of two young women, both controlled by their brother, one promised to a man she doesn't love, one about to be confined to a convenant, and both escaping during carnival time in Naples to discover a wilder world of debauchery and romance. It's unusual, though, in playing very heavily into the women's perspective - not only do the two sisters drive much of the plot, the romantic rival for the escapee-nun, the prostitute Angelica Bianca, has plenty of time to get her own personal perspective out there.
Eamon Flack's production plays the romance largely straight and the comedy somewhat looser, but hilariously so (I have no idea why he decided to put the pengin bit in there,, apart from because it would be funny, but it absolutely is funny). He's also quite willing to let the males look either clueless or actively hostile in various cases. The titular rover, Toby Schmitz, gets a truly scene-stealing entrance and is clearly wild and irresponsible, but it's also quite clear how that irresponsibility can do real damage, both to the heart and sometimes also physical. It's not all fun and games, there are genuine physical threats out there. Taylor Ferguson as the not-gonna-be-a-nun Hellena has innocence and yearning on her side but is also smart enough to know how to hold her man's wandering eye. Nikki Shiels is pure lustrous Italianate energy as the gorgeous Angelica Bianca, sophisticated courtesan who is undone by her passion for the Rover. Luke Ford and Elizabeth Nabben hold up the straight-romance subplot, Ford, delightfully, just a little dim, and Nabben thoroughly frustrated as the debauch gets out of control. Andre DeVanny has the awkward bit that he's meant to be comically tedious at the beginning (and, as often happens, he slips slightly into tedious), but as the action gets going he becomes a worthily foolish participant. Megan Wilding as Angelica's maid and another lady of the night sells either relentless practicality or saucy trickstering, as required .Nathan Lovejoy is wonderfully ludicrous as the goofy Don Antonio and provides staunch backup as Frederick. Gareth Davies has the tricky challenge of moving from idiot to dangerous monster in the second half and he manages to make the giggles dry in our mouths as we realise how completely unpleasant he is becoming. Kiruna Stammel has the least to do as one of the maids but by the second half she's amusing simply by walking through a scene so that helps.
Mel Page's set and costumes contribute to the lushly fantasticly frivolous nature of the show. Scott Witt ensures the fights are both realistically threatening and, presumably, actually reasonably safe.
This is largely a winter-warmer of a comedy, but with a couple of deeper thoughts about man-woman relations that gives it a little substance. Worth coming out for.
Saturday, 15 July 2017
There's been a bit of a run of reasonably glitzy musicals based on British comedies from the late 90s/early 2000s about Northern English Industrial Crises - whether it be "The Full Monty", "Billy Elliot" or now "Kinky Boots". This is probably the glitziest of the lot, based loosely on a true story of a shoe manufacturer who turned to boots for drag queens as a specialised market. In real life, the market was eventually taken over by cheaper imports and the company has since folded, however for the purposes of musical theatre, it's largely a story of inspiration and triumph and a whole lotta glitz.
This is not a perfectly put together show - one lead, the factory owner Charlie, is rather colourless with most of his songs rather generic ballads, while the other, drag queen Lola, gets all the good up-tempo songs and the better of the ballads but gets no real defined sexuality; female characters are mostly functional only (Sophie Wright's Lauren scores the best with the hilarious "History of Wrong Guys", but is otherwise ignored, while Tegan Wouters' Nicola is just a walking plot-device), and the second-act complication in particular feels fairly contrived. And the ending rolls into curtain call almost before the plot has actually stopped.
However, Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography smooth over the clunky bits as much as possible (when the plot takes us to a somewhat unlikely boxing match, he damn well brings us a boxing arena with the assistance of a couple of ribbons and a drag-queen's leg) and gives us a production that never looks less than spectacular and moves like greased lightning. There's a solid band under the direction of Luke Hunter, good performances throughout (including an ensemble that has a nice mix of bodies ad personalities - not just a bunch of gym-polished dancers), and a few good gags and songs as well. So if it's not perfect, it's not awful either, and its heart is in several very right places.