Following its original New York premiere in 1950, Guys and Dolls has grown to be a show that is known and loved around the world. In fact, it’s probably one of the most well-known stage musicals of its time, and features some incredibly iconic songs and moments. With all of this in mind, to produce it is a pretty big ask of a relatively small Reading theatre, especially one which is creating all of its work totally on site.
While the original of this show was, of course, a little before my years, it feels very much to me that this specific revival is channeling as much of that original as it can. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it does feel as though it seems to be attempting to rejuvenate the existing image of the show, rather than creating a new one. Of course, there’s a very fine line between paying homage, and allowing a production to become contrived, and there are moments at which I felt it stepped too close to that line.
This is a problem with any older musical, and in this case it’s a problem which is largely combatted through heavy reliance on its very talented cast. With a show that treads this close to pantomime territory, there’s no way it could survive without every person on stage holding their own consistently. On this front it is without fault.
Another problem with any older musical, of course, is the rather depressing and archaic attitudes that they so often depend upon. It’s uncomfortable to watch female characters being, on several occasions, carried quite violently offstage. While this was written in for comedic value, it feels like a very small and narratively inconsequential change that could be made to allow the show to sit more comfortably in the 21st century, without losing its spirit. There are other somewhat uncomfortable elements which are less easily shaken, like the entire plot point of a woman being tricked into getting drunk, hundreds of miles from home.
It wouldn’t be true to say that I love Diego Pitarch’s set design. It does the job, but, at the same time, this also entered the territory of feeling contrived. There is nothing really ‘new’ feeling about it, although there are certain limitations on how much he could do: the auditorium can’t be rearranged due to the building’s listed status (because of the water wheel that runs through the bar), and the semi circular stage presents plenty of its own challenges.
All in all, Guys and Dolls feels very slightly like a cookie cutter musical. There isn’t anything wrong with it as such, but it could perhaps do with more artistic license, and a little less of what we already have. It’s fun, and light, but is lacking a certain something under that shiny surface.
Guys and Dolls is playing at the Mill Theatre at Sonning until February 23. For more information, click here.