A tremendous success on Broadway in 1965, The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of The Crowd never properly made it to London even though it started life on our side of the pond at Theatre Royal Nottingham the year before.
Leslie Bricusse’s and Anthony Newley’s musical has an impressive string of show tunes, including "Feelin’ Good" – Nina Simone’s plaintive interpretation will always be my favourite – plus "The Joker", "Look At That Face" and the big hit will always be "Who Can I Turn To?" which bowls along with pathos and depth.
There’s one hitch with Greasepaint though: the premise is undeniably strange.
Poor, starving Cocky plays an endless ‘game’ with well fed, domineering Sir who makes up the rules for each round on the spot. Skinny, cockney Cocky in a battered bowler hat is at the mercy of his eloquent, slippery opponent, watched at every move by a gaggle of urchins.
Frankly, Greasepaint sounds more like a Pinter play than a smash hit musical.
But the bare, odd book leaves plenty of room for a compelling concept. For what is effectively the London premiere at Finborough Theatre, director Ian Judge has crafted a weird circus world for the drama, which becomes an extended metaphor for the bullying ways of the white upper class male.
The allegory is brutal, and the intrusion of The Negro in the second half, bounding through the game with no heed for the rules to sing a fabulous, soul-infused rendition of "Feelin' Good" (Terry Doe) is a rather blunt statement but it's easy to imagine a State-side Sixties crowd ready to get excited about it in the thrust of civil rights.
The show is a great vehicle for defined character work: Sir is a manipulative ringmaster of sorts, played with dashing condescension by Oliver Beamish; Matthew Ashforde sings Cocky’s irony-laden lines in "Who Can I Turn To?" with a working class world weariness worthy of David Bowie circa late nineteenth century.
Choreographer Tim Jackson has filled the space with madcap movement, while musical director Ross Leadbeater has matched angelic harmonies for the group of urchins - mischievous pierrot clowns – which pair well with the black humour of tunes like ‘A Very Funny Funeral’.
As a piece of straight theatre, The Roar of Greasepaint - The Smell of The Crowd could soar, but as a musical, it is almost let down by its appealing peculiarity. Here’s to hoping it emerges from the woodwork as a cult classic for 21st century audiences.
- Vicky Ellis