Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight: so go Steven Sondheim's lyrics in the opening number of his classic musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Director Damian Cruden and his cast have fulfilled Sondheim's brief for this big time blockbuster Theatre Royal production.
The familiar comes in the form of Martin Barrass. Barrass is a regular and extremely popular star in York, cropping up every year in the Theatre Royal's pantos as Berwick Kaler's foil. Here he gets the chance to shine as freedom-seeking slave Pseudolus, a role most closely associated in Britain with comedy legend Frankie Howerd.
The peculiar thing is that Cruden and Barrass have opted to espouse the Howerdism's in favour of Bilkoisms. The show, based by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove on the writings of Plautus, was always written with Phil Silvers in mind and Barrass' performance is very much a homage to Silvers. The rest of the cast follow suit with American accents and full throttle vaudeville style (Howard Attfield's Hysterium, for example, is in the Jimmy Durante mode). This works, but one can only imagine with glee what York's abundant bunch of American tourists will make of it all.
While A Funny Thing... is a bawdy comedy the show works on a variety of levels, pleasing everyone. Sondheim's songs, the intricate and impeccable construction, scantily clad courtesans, the ridiculously juvenile humour and, specific to this production, an impressive multi-doorway Roman villa set (design by Nigel Hook) and a small but assured orchestra (musical direction by Dean Austin) are all part of this complex but delightful mix.
Sondheim once suggested that the show is foolproof but it does require enormous talent to pull everything off - the quick-fire succession of gags and comedy routines and the complex chase scene finale through 16 available openings are handled with impeccable pace by all the toga wearers involved.
Peroxide blonde Michael Cahill is a camp Hero, Nicola Blackman's (Dominia) singing voice is as powerful as her joke-providing cleavage, Poppy Tierney, who plays virginal Philia, bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, Richard Ashton towers over all with his booming Roman warrior Miles Gloriosus, while Richard Kay and Lincoln Hudson are side-splitting as a pair of eunuchs.
Yes, A Funny Thing... is a politically incorrect riot of laughs grounded in an outmoded 1960s paradigm, but this is comedy, folks - and not just tonight.
At the Theatre Royal York until 2 September 2000