Review: Guys and Dolls, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“What’s happening all over? I’ll tell you what’s happening all over”

2011 really has been a fantastic year for fringe musicals in London. Theatres south of the river like the Landor, the Union and Southwark Playhouse have delivered works of great precision and concentrated passion, but at this late juncture in the year, the team Upstairs at the Gatehouse have redressed the balance northwards with an audaciously thrilling production of Frank Loesser’s classic Guys and Dolls, the first fringe version of it to be seen in London. Noo Yoik gangsters, gamblers, showgirls, missionaries and compulsive eaters all come together as guys chase unattainable dolls and other dolls try to get their guys down the aisle whilst they’re trying to organise a little gambling tournament. And of course it is all accompanied by one of the most glorious scores in musical theatre – no mean feat for a fringe venue to attempt.

The space above the Highgate pub has been opened up marvellously in Racky Plew’s traverse staging which allows Martin Thomas’ free-flowing design to cleverly work in the limited space yet make it feel ideally suited to the purpose. But the main beneficiary of the staging is Lee Proud’s choreography which is outrageously daring (people in the front row are safe, but may flinch!) and breathtakingly executed with style and accuracy by the 12-strong ensemble, the tall drink of ginger ale that is Paul Bullion stood out most for me. From the striking opening routine to the iconic leaping dance of the dice-rolling men to the teasing turns from Miss Adelaide and her counterparts, this is pure quality across the board and incredible to see at such close quarters.

Performance-wise too, this is an ensemble who have worked extremely well to create carefully detailed characters so that even the smallest cameos have great impact. Anthony McGill’s kindly Abernathy gives a tenderly beautiful ‘More I Cannot Wish You’; Patrick Rufey’s always-eating Nicely Nicely nearly brings down the house leading a raucous ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat’; and Connor Dowling steals every scene he is in as the mad-eyed, helium-voiced Officer Brannigan, a simply hilarious performance. Of the main performers, only Amy Bailey’s Sarah Brown showed a little reticence in the first half but soon warmed up and joined Jamie Sampson’s charismatic Sky, James Kermack’s hugely appealing Nathan and Rebecca Sutherland’s show-stopping Miss Adelaide in presenting hugely engaging and likeable leads.

The only tiny criticism that emerged from the evening was that a few too many minor slips crept in, fringe theatres can be quite unforgiving and so every little hiccup was exposed but nothing major and most, if not all, should be ironed out as the run progresses, making this a rather unmissable show. Delightfully daring and audaciously staged, this really is a piece of true Broadway magic in Highgate and oddly enough, feels like the perfect feel-good festive family show: recommended.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 29th January

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