A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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”