Pretty early on in Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit, a harassed gambler, explodes down the phone at the garage owner who’s proving irritatingly unwilling to break the law, only to turn apologetically to the audience member sat beside him. ‘I’m sorry you had to hear that’ he fusses, prompting a belly laugh from around him. Please don’t apologize Nathan – Guys and Dolls was an utter delight and I wouldn’t have missed a line of it.
Director Issy Fidderman’s show is impressive for its depth of talent. Laurence Belcher struck just the right note between permanently stressed and ceaselessly optimistic as Nathan, while the slow, sultry swagger of Eoghan McNelis’s Sky Masterson set plenty of pulses racing (I’m pretty sure no has ever succeeded in making the word ‘chemistry’ quite so sexy). David Garrick and Laurence Jeffcoate were stand outs – as a comedy duo, they had the audience sniggering time and again as they teased an irate policeman Brannigan (Charlie Tyrer), tiptoed round Nathan’s moods and remained constantly two steps behind the storyline.
For me though, Emilie Finch and her New York drawl completely stole the show. She balanced the high-pitched, hip swaying exuberance of Adelaide with bone-dry sarcasm; her hysterical and hiccoughy adulation of Nathan was made poignant by moments of genuine despair. When she turned to him with the line ‘I could honestly die’, stripped of her characteristic vocal embellishments, I utterly believed in her pain. The strength of the leads is offset by a wonderful chorus whose obvious enjoyment of their roles creates an infectious sense of fun. Adelaide’s dancers were eye wateringly flirty and the gamblers pranced around the stage throwing out quips nearly as sharp as the angles of their trilbies.
The quality of the singing was excellent all round, but sadly beset by radio mic interference that spoiled the intensity of many numbers. I was pretty sceptical about the decision to make Lady Luck into a role – while Lena Schienwield was impressively acrobatic I felt it was generally unnecessary and confused rather than improved the transitions between scenes. However, she came into her own during Luck Be a Lady and her interaction with the gamblers as a kind of human die was eye catching.
The set consisted of oversized dice and playing cards attached to the back curtain and arranged to echo the New York skyline. Unfortunately this wasn’t very obvious visually and I only realised the intention half way through the second act. The cards also introduced a slightly jarring Alice in Wonderland flavour to the production – rabbit holes and tea parties are not natural bedfellows of the seedy underbelly of Broadway. However, I loved the idea of tables to physically bring the audience into the show as the cast wafted among them, ruffling hair and stealing wine.
As you watch Guys and Dolls, you begin to forget the divide between audience and actor. You lose yourself in the nightclubs, drugstores and moonlit streets of 1920s New York, buoyed along by the charisma and enthusiasm of the cast. It’s escapism pure and simple but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As I walked out of the Keble O’Reilly, all I can say is if I was a bell I’d be ringing…