The show: Guys and Dolls at the Savoy Theatre, February 27 2016 (matinee)
The drinks: gin cocktail at lunch, medium wine at the top, medium wine at the interval. (The house red at the Savoy is not actually that bad, and you can order £5/175ml vouchers when you book tickets, which again is all right for the West End really.)
Oh my goodness, this show! The songs are just one killer after another, and the plot is even more ridiculous than I remember. It feels like a “Guys and Dolls” comes up every three or four years in London, and this is a particularly tight production of a show that benefits from being tight.
They got Jamie Parker in to do some actual acting as Sky Masterson, which was a mistake because all proper acting does is show up how absolutely no part of the Sky-Sarah story holds together, except for the songs and the kissing, which are both very good.
Working backwards from the end:
1. Are we really supposed to believe that Sarah (Siubhan Harrison), whose journey through the show was from repressed religious conservative to enthusiastic lamppost-swinger, is not only going back to full-time Save-a-Soul Mission work but has pulled Sky in with her? And that this is a happy ending? Sky’s conversion is the most plausible part of this – the guy is independently wealthy and travels all over the country and has actually read the Bibles placed in his hotel rooms, not once but several times all the way through, instead of getting drunk and passing out half-undressed and waking up with a faceful of scratchy duvet like normal people on holiday. The man was itching for an excuse to start going to church. But Sarah has just discovered there’s a whole brilliant world out there with fistfights and rum and planes and kissing, do not tell me she’s going to be happy going back to bashing that little tambourine up and down Broadway every day.
2. Sky bets all the gamblers $1,000 each “against their souls”, so they will go to a midnight prayer meeting at the Save-a-Soul Mission and he can fulfill his marker for “one dozen genuine sinners”. If he has >$12,000 in cash to hand, it should be trivially easy to find twelve people basically anywhere outside, and pay them like $50 each to go sit in a mission for an hour. What about the fancy ladies from the opening dance? What about the guy with the brown paper bag doing drunk pratfalls, he could use some money. What about the Hot Box Girls? (To be fair it has been established that Sky likes bonkers bets, and hiring some random people does not lead to a great song about how Sky has been buying Lady Luck drinks all night and so it is totally unfair that Lady Luck might possibly decide not to fuck him.) (ok no actually it is a great song, ALL THE SONGS ARE GREAT.)
3. Fair enough Sarah feeling guilty about leaving the mission (for one night! when do these ‘volunteers’ sleep?) so Nathan was able to hold the floating crap game there, because guilt isn’t always rational. What I want to know is, how did Nathan know that not only Sarah but everyone else at the mission was going to be out all night? He had to have someone on the inside and my money’s on Arvide.
4. Sky and Sarah go to Havana for one scene! It is delightful how thin the excuse is to get some Cuban dancing and costumes in. (Reminder: Guys and Dolls was voted winner of the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) “It’s just a five-hour flight!” Sky says: please picture Sky and Sarah sitting next to each other for five hours on the way down, maintaining exactly the same awkward but palpable chemistry they had in their first scene (so we could see it change for the first time on stage), then her drunkenly mashing her face onto his, then ANOTHER five-hour flight back up, then tentatively walking around Manhattan singing about their feelings. (how did they not fuck in the toilets? Actually Sky probably got them a private cabin. How did they not fuck in the private cabin??)
(4b. the “Bacardi, it’s….. a sort of natural preservative”/”Wait, Bacardi, doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”/”…….Ummmmmm not a lot, no!” bit is a bit date rapey? When Sarah is actually drunk, Sky is definitely uncomfortable with her kissing him and clearly wants to hold off until she sobers up, which is pleasing for a male romantic lead written in 1950, but it’s Still A Bit Dodge!)
5. Sarah is objectively just bad at talking to people, which is fine, but another reason why her going back to mission work is a sad ending not a happy one.
Anyway though, the great thing about this musical is that what’s going on on paper is almost totally irrelevant, the general story of Socialised-Repressed Woman With Great Capacity For Joy and Ostensible Playboy Surprised By Real Feelings is so solid and the songs nail it so well that it doesn’t really matter what’s coming out of their mouths the rest of the time.
(Regarding Jamie Parker’s accent. His acting was otherwise good and his acting in general is good; I am hoping he had a cold, there has been one going around.)
Regarding the climactic all-night prayer meeting. The dramatic point of this scene is obviously to pack a bunch of gamblers into a Christian prayer hall and do some jokes and singing, which is great. But the 49th Street branch of the Save-a-Soul Mission is, by any measure, failing, and deserves to close. Their head struggles to talk to people as if they’re fellow human beings instead of props in a morality play, and the only thing the other volunteers seem to do is wander around Broadway playing the triangle and haranguing people. Have they considered eg setting up a shelter for homeless people? Offering some kind of addiction support for the man with the brown paper bag? Paid low-skilled work for people wanting to leave bad employment? Systematic food distribution? The Mission does have free coffee and donuts, which are at least calorie dense. But the best thing it has to offer anyone stopping by is Nicely-Nicely Johnson singing gospel pastiche, and he doesn’t even go there.
Regarding Miss Adelaide. I was trying to figure out what, exactly, she’s looking for in a marriage to Nathan that she doesn’t have when the play starts: their relationship seems otherwise solid and she isn’t worried about him dropping her or cheating on her or anything like that, that makes her feel she has to ‘lock him down’. She fantasises about a home in the country, but this comes across as more about square footage than anything else (“a home – with wallpaper, and bookends!” – you can see so clearly the tiny poky studio where she’s living now!). Specifically her eleven o’clock vision of Nathan as a corn-tending farmer is I think more sexual than aspirational. She loves her job stripping at the Hot Box: it is in no way implied or even shaded that she wants a husband to ‘save’ her, ‘take her away from all this’, etc. She enjoys her work, is successful at it, and is uninhibitedly proud to have Nathan and his friends come to see her perform. Sophie Thompson did a lovely line reading of how excited Adelaide was about doing a show at the Hot Box then running off to elope – an afternoon gig stripping, followed by her wedding to the love of her life, was clearly her idea of a perfect day.
What Adelaide seems to want from marriage is the gloss of respectability that comes with a technical change in social status – leaving the uncertainty of “a female remaining single, just in the legal sense” and gaining the acceptable title of ‘Mrs’. She is “tired of getting the fisheye from the hotel clerk” and “getting a kind of a name for herself”; what will be different after the wedding is not how she and Nathan relate to each other, but how other people judge her. (I suspect being Mrs Detroit rather than Miss Adelaide will also help put off some of the more obnoxious punters at the Hot Box.) The changes she wants to see in Nathan are for him to stop running the crap game, and simply to start telling her the truth.
Regarding Nathan. Watching David Haig’s Nathan Detroit was a great reminder of what a misstep it was to cast Frank Sinatra in the film, because the part is in no way cool. Haig was almost smellably sweaty, falling back on dad jokes to smooth things over, a chatty maitre d’ trying desperately to project an air of with-it panache while the kitchen burns down behind him. Adelaide’s right, he would be a great assistant manager at the A&P. It was the funniest I can remember seeing Nathan on his own; I feel like it’s more usual for him to be a straight man and supporting act to Miss Adelaide.
Regarding Adelaide again. Gosh, she is just an absolutely lovely person! She’s so kind to Sarah when she’s known her for all of three seconds, genuinely pleased for her and Sky, in general happy when her friends are happy and defensive and scrappy when they’re not. What a generously written part (apparently it was written for Vivian Blaine, who had auditioned for Sarah and wasn’t quite right, but they wanted to keep her in the show). I had also forgotten that she has a line hinging on the Latin plural of “streptococcus”, and in googling for the exact lyric (which is “You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk”) found a bunch of male critics sniffing at her for not understanding what she’s reading/singing. HEY MEN, she did not read that line out of her book, she came up with it herself, and pronounced it perfectly.
Regarding Lieutenant Brannigan. It is implied he recently stopped taking bribes, as well as just starting to turn up the heat on the crap game. What’s the story there, eh? (I do like that he wanders into exactly two scenes where needed, like a crap Javert with nothing else to do but pester relatively small-time criminals. It tells you what the stakes in the story are.)
Regarding Adelaide yet again, and Sarah. I have always been mildly horrified by the last duet, but this production made it as clear as possible that “marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow” is TERRIBLE ADVICE. Both women had these delighted, open faces that showed how neither really thought they’d actually get to marriage, and it was like the first time you go to the bar and don’t have to use a fake ID, and realise you can order anything you want, and your friend goes “Let’s get martinis!” because Casino Royale was on last night, and you go, “absolutely! I mean, sure! They looked awful but YES!” and they are awful, because you’re used to Malibu and Cokes and martinis are like 87.5% gin, but you’re convincing yourself this is what fun is like, and anyway look at us we’re grown-ups drinking grown-up drinks!!! That is how Sophie Thompson and Siubhan Harrison played that song, and it was incredibly charming, and also definitely not advice anyone should ever take.
But actually my favourite part of “Guys and Dolls” – after the lyrics, and the singing, and the costumes, and the dialect, and the cheesy almost hopeful grin Lt Brannigan gives after dropping a joke about “holy rollers” – is how horrified all the 1950s New York gangsters are by the Chicago gangster carrying a gun. It’s absolutely wonderful. It tells us we’re in a nice world, where the people are fundamentally good, and everything is going to be all right.