Mumford Theatre, Anglia Ruskin, 7.45pm, 6th – 9th March, £10/8
Matinee 2.30pm, 9th March
I left this show happy. It’s not a perfect production, but if you like unusually smart musicals, skilled performances or good theatre in general, this isn’t one to miss.
A Funny Thing Happened follows the manic efforts of the slave Pseudolus to win his freedom by helping his lovelorn master, Hero, win the heart of the next-door virgin, Philia. The biggest problem is that she’s about to be married to (or more accurately conquered by) the war hero Miles Gloriosus; but there are other obstacles, like Hero’s dysfunctional parents and Marcus Lycus, the money-hungry brothel owner next door.
They’re all drawn into two hours worth of feverish plotting, romancing and improvising that, because it’s a comedy, ends up neatly and happily. But the plot is anything but predictable. It probes insightfully into relationship dynamics and quietly explores themes like freedom and self-control. The lyrics are fast and sophisticated, full of double entendres and witty asides, and the score shifts constantly between keys and moods: like the plot, it’s always in danger of falling off a cliff, only to be righted at the last second.
This makes the show a high stakes game. Like every musical by Stephen Sondheim, if you do it well, the payoff’s tremendous, but it’s extremely difficult material to master. Luckily for those of us in the audience on Wednesday, the cast rose to the occasion. There’s not enough space here to run through the eight or nine performers who made serious contributions, but a few people stood out.
Andrew Room as Pseudolus carries the show in the crucial role: he clearly understood his character for what he is, the only flexible and self-aware person in a play filled with one-dimensional, self-absorbed ones. Room started off the first two numbers controlled but tense: after that, he relaxed and put in a perfectly modulated performance that managed to be expressive yet by no means overstated.
Besides Room, Georgina Skinner in the smaller role of Philia was the most confident performer, inhabiting her character consistently and drawing some of the night’s best laughs. Also impressive, especially in Act II, was Robert Brocklehurst as the aptly named slave Hysterium. Dylan Morris as the war hero Gloriousus, James Ireland as Marcus Lycus and Samantha Hill as the prostitute Vibrata added weight and humour whenever they came onstage.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. The main technical problem, endemic to musicals, was the orchestra, which was too loud, and which didn’t cue in the actors smoothly enough. The main problem with the performances was that, with the exception of Room and Skinner, the cast often focused on simply surviving the difficult pieces at the expense of enjoying them. This led to a couple of missed opportunities, where songs weren’t exploited fully for their underlying themes.
One example was “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” a hilariously understated song about the sexual fantasies of frustrated men which unfortunately wasn’t performed with much enthusiasm. Another was “That Dirty Old Man,” a funny but poignant take on how insecurity can lead to emotional abuse of another person. Rebecca Hare performed this piece with consummate technical skill but didn’t make the mid-song emotional shift from self-reflective to vengeful that clarifies her character’s underlying motivations.
But issues like these are fixable, and they’re to be expected when you try to stage a show this challenging. At the end of the day, none of it really mattered, because the payoff was huge: the audience cheering after the last number was the most satisfied I’ve yet heard in Cambridge.