Why shouldnít the National let its hair down once in a while? The new production of the 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, being presented as part of the Travelex £10 season in the NT Olivier, is the perfect summer treat. And also, it so happens, the perfect piece for the scaled-down scenic resources of the £10 aesthetic, since the set it gets here is precisely the one this show usually gets, namely simple representations of the three houses in Rome, circa 200 BC, in front of which all the action takes place.
Here, to the accompaniment of a treasurable set of irresistibly witty songs (Stephen Sondheimís first produced score for which he wrote both songs and lyrics), is unleashed a set of collisions in the guise of a hilarious sex farce.
Edward Hallís swift, sunny and funny production also honours the clockwork precision of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbartís book, inspired by the ribald plays of Plautus, and the comic rigour of their construction, and contains a set of performances that range from the blissful to the occasionally bashful.
Letís air the only small grievance first. Desmond Barrit - following in the very large footsteps of Zero Mostel who created the role of Pseudolus originally on Broadway in 1962, and Frankie Howerd who made it his own over here - he is (at least at the moment) surprisingly tentative as a slave yearning for his freedom and plotting to obtain it by securing the virginal courtesan from the brothel next door for his young master Hero.
Usually this bulky, brilliant actor dominates any stage heís on. But, for now, heís taking a backseat to the hilarious scene-stealing revelations of the evening, Sam Kellyís Senex and Hamish McColl as Senexís slave Hysterium.
Kelly possesses a barely disguised sense of amused anarchy, as obstinately mischievous as his character is infinitely lecherous, that makes him a joy to watch. Youíre never quite sure what heís going to do next. His performance is the musical equivalent of watching Michael Gambon, and I can think of no higher theatrical praise. And to see The Right Sizeís McColl Ė a picture of constant panic as a fellow slave thrown into containing the spiralling confusion - is to spot someone who himself could one day play a great Pseudolus himself.
But thatís to single out only two of a richly inhabited ensemble that elsewhere includes a brilliantly pompous turn from Philip Quast as the vain and muscular warrior Miles Gloriousus, and two sweetly appealing leads from Vince Leigh and Caroline Sheen.
This is a show, itís true, with which itís difficult to go too wrong, since itís so tightly constructed: just perform it as written and itíll fly. Hallís cast do so and it does.
- Mark Shenton