When, in 2015, the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Gypsy transferred to the West End, I got caught up in the general adulation of Imelda Staunton’s interpretation of Rose, the show’s leading lady who gets the biggest tunes in both acts. But eventually there were to be dissenting voices, and I remember one saying, “She just shouted”, which in fairness, did make for a rather flatter and less rounded stage personality than the more nuanced performance by Ria Jones in this Royal Exchange production in 2019-20. Dale Rapley’s Herbie was easily going to be superior to Peter Davison in the 2015 West End production: all he had to do, to be blunt, is sing well in the first place. (I found it rather ironic that the iconic line, “Sing out, Louise!” from this show should really have been better applied to Mr Davison than that production’s Louise, Lara Pulver.)
The in-the-round seating arrangement worked rather better for the Royal Exchange’s production of West Side Story than it does for this show: there were moments when the blocking could have been rather better: from my vantage point the view was occasionally completely obscured. I still got the gist of what was going on from the dialogue. What was missed was missed – c’est la vie – but the production is good at paying attention to detail, and with the cast at such proximity to those sat in the stalls, there’s a lot to notice when the sightlines are clear.
Jones’ Rose isn’t quite as terrifying as Rose has been known to be, with the result being that her daughters Louise (Melissa James) and June (Melissa Lowe) are timid towards an assertive mother rather than reluctantly resigned to tagging along with an overly aggressive one. One thinks of Judy Murray, the mother of two sons, Jamie and Andy, who have both found success in the tennis world (the latter rather more, at least in terms of career earnings) – there’s something to be said there about nurturing the talents of one’s own flesh and blood.
One also thinks, however, of Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, who snaps at his mother Margaret: “Stop living your life through me!” There isn’t, at least not to my mind, a definitive answer that can be applied to all situations as to quite how much pressure is optimal to help a child, teenager or young adult to success, and as the old adage puts it, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. One of the most poignant moments from the Chichester production came when Louise and Rose exit together, as though the daughter, enjoying a career in entertainment (even if it is not the kind that her mother approves of) is, from that point forward, going to look after the mother, rather than the other way around. That’s missing from this production, such that Rose is likely to remain stubbornly trying to run Louise’s affairs despite the younger actor now having a press agent, a maid and other assistants at her disposal.
Gypsy is, essentially, drama about drama, but also there’s an element of staying true to oneself and playing to one’s strengths. Nonetheless, there’s a need to keep up with the changing times, and ‘Mama’ Rose’s vaudeville act just couldn’t keep up with technological developments in the interwar period – namely, the rise of radio, television and ‘talking pictures’. This production is ably supported by two teams of eight children who rotate, each team appearing in four performances per week. The transition both in terms of storyline and staging from these children to their older equivalents (the show does a time hop at some point in the first half, leapfrogging several years at once) is simple but phenomenal.
A cranelike structure effectively acts as a proscenium arch, which seems to work best when there’s an audition going on in the show. Mazeppa (Susie Chard), Electra (Kate O’Donnell) and Tessie Tura (Rebecca Thornhill) stretch out their amusing burlesque sequence because they must repeat their acts so that everyone (more or less) can see what it is they’re up to. It’s three hours long (there is an interval) but for me it felt somewhat shorter, which is never a bad thing. There’s some fancy footwork throughout, a testament to the usual standards from choreographer Andrew Wright, particularly in a solo number by Tulsa (Alastair Crosswell at this performance, understudying for Louis Gaunt). A glorious performance from a hardworking cast.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.