A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Open Air Theatre
The first and last production I saw of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was put on by students and I loved it. The opportunity to see it now at the hands of professionals was something to look forward to. How much better could they make it? The answer, unfortunately, is, not much. In truth, the only really funny thing about this Funny Thing is that it's not very funny at all.
Although the musical, which won six Tony Awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1962, is now renowned for being legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's first score for which he wrote both the lyrics and all the music, to call it vintage Sondheim is highly misleading. Yes, Sondheim is given room to polish his verbal dexterity - with lots of staccato interludes that give singers little pause for breathe - but the music is secondary to a relentlessly intricate and preposterous plot. This is farce, full-blown and unapologetic, care of the late Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (who later famously became the creator of M*A*S*H).
Pseudolus (Roy Hudd) is a Roman slave who wants to buy his freedom. He strikes a bargain with his young master Hero (Rhashan Stone) - if he can secure the women Hero loves, his freedom he can have. But Hero's beloved Philia (Claire Carrie) is a ditzy Greek virgin who has been sold by the local pimp to a great warrior. Chaos and confusion erupts in the neighbourhood as the pair try to set her free, dodging whores, eunuchs, centurions and overbearing parents along the way.
Designer Paul Farnsworth shoots for pure Rome-a-gogo with a set of higgledy-piggledy, chequerboard houses in day-glo colours and a cast of mini-skirted prostitutes who look like extras from Josie and the Pussycats. It's clear that director Ian Talbot is intending to carry off proceedings in true Carry On fashion. And, although the material seems custom-fit for this treatment, in this case it just doesn't work.
Amongst a clutch of mediocre performances, the innuendos sound hollow and the jokes fall flat. There are a few exceptions. Peter Gallagher plays a fantastically arrogant, Elvis-inspired Miles Gloriosus while Peter Forbes as brothel-owner Marcus Lycus and Ken Wynne as befuddled neighbour Erronius put in some good turns. The troupe of four eunuchs/warriors/citizens provide the greatest number of cheap laughs as they run ragged round the stage swapping costumes and accents.
But the real disappointment is Hudd in the pivotal role of Pseudolus. Hudd's voice is not up to the task of singing and his comic timing is just plain off. He should really stick to pantomimes from now on.
And as for A Funny Thing - bring back the madcap student productions, please!