“There’s always a joker in the pack, there’s always a lonely clown”
There ought to be clowns and indeed there were, six urchin-types all done up in Pierrot costumes, an ever-present chorus observing the almost Beckettian power dynamics between the two main characters who are constantly playing and replaying the age old game of life. What might surprise is that this is the set-up for a musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint The Smell of the Crowd with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, perhaps best known for their collaboration on the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Upper class ‘Sir’ is always in change of the game and is constantly changing the rules so that working-class Cockney ‘Cocky’ is always kept down-at-heel: the plays aims for a metaphysical representation of the 1960s British class system, replete with a sprinkling of absurdist touches that try to enliven the grindingly repetitive nature of the game-playing. But the story is accompanied by a musical score which encompasses a number of songs which may be incredibly familiar to you: standards like ‘Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)’ and ‘Look At That Face’, ‘The Joker’ – recognisable as the theme tune for hilarious television show Kath and Kim and also from Shirley Bassey’s Greatest Hits (or maybe both…!) and ‘Feelin’ Good’, immortalised by Nina Simone’s flawless interpretation.
And it is a stark contrast between book and music. Matthew Ashforde’s likeable everyman makes Cocky an appealing figure, whilst Oliver Beamish’s oily sense of entitlement as the controlling Sir is well pitched with the air of menace never too far away, especially in the approach to the interval. Brief cameos from characters like The Girl and The Bully are simply tools to allow Sir’s continued oppression, but when the free spirited The Negro (the show showing its age somewhat) actually enters the Game and challenges the class conventions, there’s only one place the story can go. But the songs seem firmly rooted in the music hall tradition and more often than not, didn’t have that organic sense of being integral to the show or vital to the storytelling.
That said, there are some brilliant tunes in there, eminently hummable and Terry Doe’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ backed by harmonising urchins and Ashforde’s ‘Who Can I Turn To’ are both great moments. Tim Goodchild’s design is probably one of the best currently in London, utilising the natural curve of the room to create a miniature faded Big Top with a boardgame painted on the floor and ladders all around adding an extra dimension. Ross Leadbeater’s musical direction from the keyboard remained sensitive to the need not to overpower (never easy in such an intimate space) and the team of urchins were well-drilled in both their choreographic and singing contributions. A strangely curious piece to be sure, but one with enough intrigue and tunes to commend.