When The Guardian credited this blockbuster with “strong
claims to be the funniest musical ever written,” it was right.
For an evening of sheer enjoyment,
nothing can touch it, from Stephen Sondheim’s wittily-crafted
lyrics of the rousing opening number, “Comedy Tonight” to the
comic characters that have held the stage for two millennia in
action involving mistaken identity, chases, disguise, surprise,
and narrow escapes. Add sight gags and one-liners expertly delivered
and clever choreography plus delightful songs. Co-writer of the book Larry Gelbart confesses
that the show, based on comedies of Roman playwright Plautus,
was created to fill a “vulgarity vacuum” left by the serious musicals
of the sixties by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.
Comedians versed in farce and punch lines were deprived
of a forum with the demise of vaudeville,
music hall, and burlesque.
Credit director Edward Hall for the excellent
timing and ensemble effect in the fast-moving action of “A Funny
Thing…” enhanced by talented singing and dancing choruses of women
as courtesans and men as acrobatic Proteans.
Desmond Barrit is Pseudolus, a crafty slave who aspires
to earn his freedom by helping his young master Hero (Vince Leigh)
attain virgin Philia (Caroline Sheen), the woman he loves despite
the fact that she has been sold by procurer Lycus to self-admiring
warrior Miles Gloriosus, about to make a spectacular entrance
to claim his purchase.
Three comic experts aid and abet Mr. Barrit as
he wriggles out of one tight situation only to land in another.
Sam Kelly is a delight as Senex, the old man who chases
women “with only the dimmest memory of what’s to be done should
he actually catch one,” observes Mr. Gelbart. Pop-eyed, nervous
slave Hysterium is Hamish McColl, improvising on his disguise
as a woman, and David Schneider is brothel proprietor Lycus, loping
like Groucho Marx and parading his ”wares,” a line of captivating,
sensuous courtesans. The men’s line-dancing quartet brings down the
house with their double entendre number “Everybody Ought
to Have a Maid” (“sweeping
up, sleeping in”). Isla Blair is suitably domineering as Domina,
who henpecks blonde-chasing husband Senex, and Caroline Sheen
is perfect as a smiling, witless, ready-to-please virgin, singing
of her one talent, being “Lovely.”
It all seems spontaneous
and is so joyously performed that one must remember that such
effects are achieved by long, hard work.
Mr.Gelbart recalls that it took five years of combing through
the 21 plays of Plautus to achieve “a Plautine piece of our own.”
In the National Theatre production the
exuberance and enthusiasm of the cast are infectious, and the
audience are on their feet and clamoring for more at the final
curtain, or as Plautus would say, “siparium”