Review: Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange

It’s pretty hard to remain seated in the presence of a lively and exciting performance that has surely rocked the musical boat in a multitude of ways. Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls has been reimagined by Michael Buffong to bring the streets of Harlem to the heart of Manchester and boy, is it an absolute delight.

Nathan Detroit is broke with a wedding looming over him… though given as it’s been fourteen years, he’s in no rush. The same cannot be said for his fiancée Adelaide who desperately wants to be Mrs Nathan Detroit and excited by all prospects of being a housewife (the way she worked that garden fork and trowel necklace courtesy of a premature wedding shower really was quite something). However, his ‘dedication’ to continue running his illegal crap games in the hopes that he’ll hit the jackpot has been taking its toll on their relationship. However, with Lieutenant Brannigan on his case there’s only one place that Nathan can host a crap game and he’ll need $1000 to secure it.

In wanders Sky Masterson, a man who’ll place a bet on anything. Nathan bets him $1000 that he can’t take the doll of his choosing (in this case, save-a-soul mission sergeant Sarah Brown) to Havana. Sky being Sky he accepts this challenge and begins his pursuit of Miss Sarah – making bets and wagers where possible to get her on this date. However, Sky did not expect that he’d fall in love with a ‘mission doll’ and from here on in, his betting becomes about much more than money.

Thrilling choreography courtesy of Kenrick Sandy and charming lyrics bring every musical number to life – with particularly memorable moments including: Adelaide’s Lament – a hilarious sharing and commentary on a pop psychology book suggesting that Adelaide’s ongoing cold is the result of her unfulfilled engagement to Nathan and, the whole cast rendition of Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat during the midnight mission meeting to which Sky has successfully delivered twelve sinners (courtesy of Nathan’s crap game). Every song is high energy and you can’t help but find yourself bopping and singing along to every chorus.

It’s not often that a cast of this size bring such an abundance of integrity and fun to the stage. Abiona Omunua and Lucy Vandi (playing Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide respectively) both gave strong performances which reached a new height when they performed their dazzling duet, Marry the Man Today. Lucy has a knack for delivering humour with just the right kind of punch and similar can be said for Ako Mitchell (who plays gambler, Nicely-Nicely Johnson). Our two leading men also delivered stellar performances. Ray Fearon (Nathan Detroit) was every inch the man you should avoid but you just cannot help yourself and, Ashley Zhangazha (Sky Masterson) certainly gave Marlon Brando a run for his money (and he certainly has some pipes on him too to top it off). But my personal highlight of the night was Joe Speare’s performance as Big Jule and Joey Biltmore (voice over), he has a beautifully rich and bassy tone to his voice that just carries you away (petition for Joe to be the next Bond?).

As the first ever all-black production of Guys and Dolls, Talawa Theatre Company and the Royal Exchange have actively broken the mould and not just for the sake of diversity brownie points. It is wholeheartedly apparent that both organisations believe in the importance and necessity of representation of Black voices on stage. This reworking and fresh approach to the casting of a classic musical also succeeds in disrupting the status quo of diversity in musicals –a welcome change from only seeing Black leads in Dream Girls, The Lion King and Sister Act.

41 years after Broadway’s first all-black Guys and Dolls, Michael Buffong has delivered a thrilling, funny and heart-warming UK edition. The perfect way to spend a festive evening at the theatre.

Guys and Dolls is playing at the Royal Exchange until 3 February 2018. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/guys-and-dolls