“You got nothing to hit but the heights”
Considered to be one of the greatest roles for a woman in the American musical theatre, Mama Rose is the twisted soul at the dark heart of Gypsy yet it is not a show that has travelled much across the ocean. The likes of Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Tyne Daly have all had their turn as Rose but my first and only experience of the show was in Leicester a couple of years back where Caroline O’Connor took on the role for Paul Kerryson’s marvellous production there. This Chichester Festival Theatre revival, surely already destined for the West End, really ups the ante by reuniting Imelda Staunton with director Jonathan Kent (at the request of Sondheim himself according to this interview) after their hugely successful Sweeney Todd here in 2011.
It’s a high bar to set but for me, I think Gypsy exceeds it with some extraordinary work here. Arthur Laurents’ book, suggested by the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, follows the path of Mama Rose’s ultimate stage mom as she drags her two daughters through the toil and grind of trying to make it in showbusiness, touring a vaudeville show around the country which stars the fading youthfulness of younger sister Baby June. But times are a-changing and Mama’s sure determined so when audiences start to disappear and June quits to do her own act, older shyer sibling Louise is thrust into the limelight. Only now burlesque is what is selling tickets and we find out just how far Rose is willing to push Louise in order to achieve her ultimate goal, whatever that turns out to be.
It’s a hugely powerful story and one that is really reinforced by being a musical. Jule Styne’s brassy, muscular score with sharp lyrics from Stephen Sondheim may have been picked apart for cabaret shows aplenty – ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’, ‘Some People’, ‘Rose’s Turn’, such tunes! – but they have a cumulative power here that cannot be denied, especially under Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction (with the band in a pit out front for once). And given the way that Kent and Staunton play it here, the power is used to tighten the screws of what is increasingly an intense psychodrama as Rose loses sight of everything but the pursuit of an elusive dream that not even she really understands. The breakdown of the climactic ‘Rose’s Turn’ thus becomes immensely potent, a magisterial performance that sears itself into the mind especially as it ends.
Staunton truly is magnificent throughout, a complex figure who battled her own (unresolved) mother issues even as she unwittingly repeats the patterns but still exuding enough charisma to make her an attractive figure to someone like Kevin Whately’s Herbie (and she really does look hot here too). Gemma Sutton’s June is always charming to watch but it is Lara Pulver who really impresses as Louise, barely recognisable in the first half as the quieter, mousier sister who only flickers vibrantly into life when a dream of a life with Dan Barton’s supple Tulsa (excellent dancer) flashes by but then is cruelly snatched away. Louise’s metamorphosis in the second half is then a work of appalling fascination as Pulver tells us almost wordlessly just how much transforming into the hugely successful Gypsy Rose Lee has cost her.
Kent’s direction is nearly pitch-perfect here, the hints of black-and-white film imagery are brilliantly done in neat touches to Anthony Ward’s set design with its revolving titles and Stephen Mear’s choreography with its ingenious time-lapse sequence, there’s just perhaps a little too much hectic shoving around of bits of set and raising of the lifts if one is being really picky. Otherwise, it is a barnstorming performance of a cracking show in which, in all honesty, few British actors could really pull off this iconic leading role – in Imelda Staunton (Dame to be, please, and Olivier winner yet again next year, mark my words) we have such a one.