Review: The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd

Walking into the Finborough theatre was quite rembarkable: Tim Goodchild has transformed the space into a worn-out circus tent arena, with a beautiful painted game board marked out on the floor. It is truly amazing and visually beautiful in such an intimate space. We dutifully took our seats, five to a row, but nothing could have prepared me for what a bizarre little musical I was about to watch.

The stage suddenly filled with six girls dressed in matching black and white Pierrot costumes, who remained on the stage for the majority of the performance providing vocal support and aiding the main characters in creating new spaces. Their ensemble numbers were well sung and the harmonies tight and powerful.

But what happens?

Well to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There is plenty to read into this production, and it is clear that “Sir”, played by Oliver Beamish and “Cocky”, played by Matthew Ashforde, represent the two opposites of social class. The pair commit to playing a game where Cocky strives to make it to the end of the board, but whenever he gains momentum and comes close to winning the prize in the centre (food, wine, a young girl), the rules are quickly changed so that he can never quite make it. Representations of the upper class controlling the lower classes are all played out before the audience. None more obvious than the appearance of “the Negro” played by Terry Doe in the second half, who also plays the game. With Cocky in control of the rules, but the Negro talking a good talk, this opens up the flood gates as he claims victory and Cocky realises that the game was set up for him never to win. “The game of life”, then concludes with Cocky setting off to start a new game and the piece comes to a close.

The show, by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the duo behind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, contains many beautiful and passionate songs, including ‘Who can I turn to?’. When Terry Doe performed ‘Feeling Good’, I, like many others in the theatre, was surprised that the song, made famous by Nina Simone and Michael Buble, featured in this bizarre little production.

While the score, dutifully played out by Ross Leadbeater, is full of lovely songs with sound performances, they add little to the narrative of the story, leaving the audience to scramble a bit in the interval to make decisions on what is actually happening.

This show, which starred Norman Wisdom and Elaine Paige in its original production in 1964, is well-rehearsed and the production values are very high. Beamish and Ashforde convincingly play to their stereotypes and work well together to display this relationships of opposites on stage. Add cameos from Doe, Louisa Maxwell as the balletic girl and the physical beast that is Tahir Ozhan as the bull, and there are plenty of elements to keep you guessing to the conclusion. I fear however that the production is somewhat dated and with little narrative drive, and doesn’t create the impact that it could to a modern audience.

The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 2nd July. Ticket and information on the Finborough’s website here.