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Sweet Smell of Success

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The Arcola has launched its reconfigured new premises – less cramped foyer, new bar, re-located studio theatre and better access to loos – with a smouldering British premiere of this sour and savage Broadway musical by Marvin Hamlisch and John Guare based on the 1957 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

Their roles are re-moulded by David Bamber as JJ Hunsecker, a vicious and powerful newspaper columnist with a 60 million-strong readership (the character was based on the legendary Walter Winchell) and Adrian der Gregorian as the ambitious PR man Sidney Falcone.

Falcone’s push to the top involves gaining publicity for his clients at the low dive Voodoo Club, while Hunsecker exploits his new protégé’s busy enthusiasm to try and break up the relationship between his half-sister, Susan (the lustrous Caroline Keiff) and her piano player boyfriend Dallas (fair and fresh-faced Stuart Matthew Price).

I saw the 2002 Broadway premiere starring John Lithgow (directed by Nicholas Hytner, designed by Bob Crowley), loved it, and have wanted to see the show again ever since. Mehmet Ergen’s production does not disappoint, creating a steamy noir atmosphere with the help of a savvy band on a rostrum (musical direction by Bob Broad), snappy and inventive choreography by Nathan M Wright and great black and white design by Mark Bailey.

Hamlisch, who died three months ago, was never a saccharine composer, but this score has no sweeteners at all, not even in the love ballads, and it absolutely bristles (with sharp lyrics by Craig Carnelia) at the great set-pieces such as the ensemble “Dirt” number and Sidney’s professional cri de coeur, “At the Fountain” (superbly discharged by der Gregorian).

The show couldn’t be better timed as we tie ourselves into knots over ethics in journalism. This is The Front Page view of the trade, with a strichnyne twist, and a romantic backwards look at the heyday of unassailable power in newsprint, nights in the Stork Club and a dodgy connivance between show business, the media and the law: nothing happens like that today, of course.

Bamber, perhaps a little too short and clerical for Hunsecker, nonetheless manages to convey his sheer oily nastiness, and his semi-incestuous obsession with Susan, if not the serpentine magnetism Lithgow provided. Der Gregorian and Keiff seem to me genuinely exciting new musical theatre names, and the chorus sings and sidles up a storm. Sound levels are good, too, for once, in a fringe blast-off. A real treat.


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