Review: Sweet Smell of Success, Arcola Theatre


“A lot can happen in one night”

The stereotypical image of musical theatre as a happy clappy ball of cheesy fun would surely be less prevalent if shows like Sweet Smell of Success were better known. But paradoxically, it benefits from having its British premiere out on the fringe in the dark warehouse surroundings of Dalston’s Arcola as this bitterly desperate tale of the hollowness at the centre of the world of celebrity journalism in 1950s America certainly benefits from the intimacy of this theatre. It has its challenges though, as an uncompromisingly bleak tale of immorality which doesn’t always quite get the balance right as director Mehmet Ergen tries to leaven the mood. 

John Guare’s story centres on JJ Hunsecker, a vicious-tongued and immensely influential columnist who has 60 million readers and is willing to do absolutely anything to keep them and his lofty position. His weakness lies in his troublingly deep affection for his half-sister Susan and his attempts to manipulate her life and her relationships threaten to drag all them down, including JJ’s protégé Sidney Falcone, all too willing to carry out his boss’s wishes in order to get the leg up he craves. The ethics of sensationalist journalism of course have a compelling currency in today’s post-Leveson environment but though David Bamber’s Hunsecker is at the centre of the story, there’s never really a sense that we get to know much about him.

And the intimacy of the story is also lost with the (admittedly often excellent) ensemble scenes which brim with inventive choreography from Nathan M Wright but somehow seem to belong to a different show. Marvin Hamlisch’s score sounds excellent though, Bob Broad’s band coping well with the unexpected turns the music often takes and the performances are strong across the board. Stuart Matthew Price’s Dallas, Susan’s boyfriend, is as nuanced and affecting as we have come to expect from this most accomplished of ‘up-and-coming’ talent, Caroline Keiff’s Susan just sounds gorgeous (though I’m not quite sure why she hadn’t just run for the hills given her creepy brother) and Adrian der Gregorian negotiates Sydney’s slide into the morass of immorality with skill.

Celia Graham and Morgan Deare stood out from a talented range of supporting performances, though it did feel a shame that everyone had to be miked – one of the joys of fringe musical theatre is being able to experience raw vocal talent – which robbed a little of the immediacy. It looks great in Mark Bailey’s monochromatic design and the overall effect is certainly impressive. But a story about such unlikeable characters has to find the right balance to hook us in and make us care about something within its telling and it was this that I found missing whilst watching it. That said, having now written this review, I find myself questioning that statement so maybe it isn’t as important as all that – on reflection I find I like the show more than when I did as it finished so it has obviously made me think. You should probably go along and make your own mind up!

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 22nd December

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