A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Director: Simon Phillips. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. From Oct 27th, 2012 for 12 weeks.

So much has been written about this production that it’s hard to know how to approach it. I’m guessing those with a sense of theatrical ennui, or the depressingly cynical, will find fault at every turn. But this is populist entertainment. If you want Goethe or Schiller, you won’t find them at The Maj.

So, let me start with the negatives and get them over and done with. Yes, the show is dated and the gags were old when I was a child. Yes, the score is just average with only one song for people to leave the theatre singing (which is still infinitely preferable to those musicals where you leave humming the set!) Yes Geoffrey Rush, one of our – if not the world’s – greatest actors, seemed to be suffering from first night nerves and looked ill at ease for much of Act 1. Yes, there were more fluffs and gaffs than I think acceptable on an opening night. Yes, the seasoned musical theatre performers showed that you don’t need a “Name” to excite an audience (Mitchell Butel should give a master-class on how to own the stage…and the audience!) It’s a small list and, in the greater scheme of things, none of it matters. It’s not a show for serious criticism, it’s a big, bawdy adult pantomime – a celebration of the ribaldry of life; and, as such, it will be the number one ticket in town for the next twelve weeks. 

For those who don’t know the story, it concerns a lovable but wily slave (Pseudolus) who tries to buy his freedom by helping his master Hero get the woman of his dreams – a virgin courtesan (Philia) – even though she has been sold to another. That’s it in a nutshell. Plautus, arguably the inventor of vaudeville, created the paradigm some 2,000 years ago and audiences are still laughing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is one of show business’s better adages.

The set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova is an absolute triumph, simply stunning on all levels. Mathew Frank as MD and Guy Simpson as music supervisor have done a fabulous job. The music is superbly played. With the orchestra elevated and hidden upstage amongst the flats, we quickly forget they’re on stage for the entire show. Sound and lighting were both excellent, though perhaps a re-balance of Mr Rush’s mic may be in order. Even from row F it seemed his volume was lower than some of the cast, and though the nature of the part means Pseudolus has a huge amount of asides and throwaway lines, we still need to hear them.

And so to performances. Geoffrey Rush gives us a more intelligent Pseudolus than we’re used to – that’s the nature of the actor. Whilst indulging in the usual shtick, the pratfalls, the obscene gestures, the general irreverence and slapstick of it all with great comic flair, this Pseudolus seems nevertheless to be constantly evaluating and thinking one step ahead, rather than being a spontaneous opportunist whose thought processes turn on the flip of a sestertius. There’s a command, a nobility amongst the grime and obscene gestures, which sometimes isn’t convincing. Perhaps it’s Simon Phillips’ direction, or perhaps Mr Rush still needs to find a level of spontaneity he’s comfortable with. Certainly comfort was not the number one impression on opening night, where he seemed to be reaching too often for the next line or move. Nevertheless there were enough moments of real magic – like the wonderfully comedic soothsayer - to make me salivate at the thought of seeing the performance again halfway through the run. 

Magda Szubanski (Domina) has some delightful moments but frankly I found her musical number “That Dirty Old Man” a disappointment, played only for the fat jokes. As a fat woman myself, I mourned the wasted opportunity to show Domina as a truly sexy BIG hetero female (we do exist) who wants to bonk her husband (funny enough in itself – there’s no need to “push” the fat angle). There’s nothing sexy about this Domina…a woman who should be able to hold her own against the courtesans…..unless she can find some man to hold it for her. The audience should be laughing WITH Domina, not at her. It’s a pity that chance was lost.

Shane Bourne brings his usual delightful warmth and appeal to Senex but seems too tentative in some scenes. This is Vaudeville…the bigger the better; it’s not about subtlety. Nevertheless, his duet with Pseudolus “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” is one of the highlights of the show.

Hugh Sheridan (Hero) is so much more than a pretty face from “Packed to The Rafters”. With a great voice and natural stage presence he and the lovely Christie Whelan-Browne make the paper thin characters of Hero and Philia into real star-crossed lovers. Beautiful comic performances from both. Gerry Connolly looking like the love child of Shylock and a young Barry Humphries, does little of note with the character of Lycus, but perhaps that’s because Australia’s original Lycus, Bob Hornery, is also in the cast – this time as the geriatric Erronius, searching for his children, stolen by pirates. Hornery’s Erronius is delicious; bewildered, happily demented and yet defiantly on a quest, his exquisite timing was rewarded with applause every time he crossed the stage. Adam Murphy (Miles Gloriosus) was in great voice and wonderfully OTT in a limited role, and the Proteans, Rohan Browne, Brent Hill and Troy Sussman, are an absolute hoot, playing the slapstick at just the right level. Bravo! The Courtesans are all excellent, great individual characters that rise beyond the usual “chorus” tag. 

And then there’s the incomparable Mitch Butel (Hysterium). He primps, he preens, he camps it up, he finds the moments for authority and pathos – a real character journey; and he sings the guts out of his hilarious number “I’m Calm”. He knows exactly what style he’s playing and he’s worth the price of a ticket by himself…perhaps another Helpmann award in the offing?

Now Melburnians, get yourself some tickets as Christmas presents for loved ones, or use them yourself. Despite any shortcomings, this is still the most fun you’ll have sitting down.

Coral Drouyn

Images (from top): Mitchell Butel, Gerry Connolly, Shane Bourne and Geoffrey Rush; Christie Whelan and Hugh Sheridan; Hugh Sheridan and Magda Szubanski & Geoffrey Rush and Adam Murphy. Photographer: Jeff Busby

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