Arts

Theatre: High kicks among the Broadway low life

Guys and Dolls: sentimental and witty

Guys and Dolls, a landmark in American music theatre, premiered in New York in 1950, when it ran for 1,200 performances. It has first-rate songs by Frank Loesser and a first-rate book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. The script, sentimental and witty, is based on Damon Runyon’s The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and the characters of Runyon’s short stories. The tales are satires on the low life of petty crooks in and around Broadway. The bums, broads, touts, pickpockets, showgirls and gangsters (many based on real-life gangsters whom Runyon knew personally) are immortalised by their whimsical nicknames and idiosyncratic language. They are all gamblers and one of the high spots of the show is the choreographed crap game in the sewers.

Nathan Detroit (David Haig) bets Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) that he can’t seduce a Salvation Army missionary (Siubhan Harrison). Sky persuades her to have dinner with him in Havana by promising to bring a dozen genuine sinners to her Save-a-Soul Mission.

Parker is a charmer, especially when he is singing I’ve Never Been in Love Before. Haig is disarming. Sophie Thompson as Nathan’s long-term fiancée has all the best one-liners and is very funny in a broad caricature way. Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat is one of the great Broadway show-stoppers and has fully rehearsed encores already built in. The gospel singing is led by Gavin Spokes’s Nicely Nicely Johnson, the most Runyonesque character. Gordon Greenberg’s lively and enjoyable production will be going on a long tour of Britain starting in mid-March, following its London season at Savoy Theatre.

Grey Gardens, a bizarre American musical at Southwark Playhouse, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michel Korie, takes its inspiration from a 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, which had (and still has) something of a cult following: no doubt because the two leading oddball characters were US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and niece. Mother and daughter do not get on.

The first act is set in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1941, and is fiction. The daughter is engaged to be married to Joseph P Kennedy, JFK’s elder brother. The second act takes place 23 years later, and the mother, who is now 79, and daughter, who is now 56, are rich recluses living in disgusting squalor.

Jenna Russell plays the 47-year-old mother in Act One and the 56-year-old daughter in Act Two: two bravura outré performances. She has the knock-out camp song, The Revolutionary Costume for Today.

Bertolt Brecht’s anti-fascist play, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, at the Union Theatre, London SE1, is a montage of short scenes describing everyday life for German citizens in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Brecht is repetitive and Phil Willmott’s production would benefit from some judicious cutting. The inclusion of some Nazi songs would have been welcome, too.

Easily the best satire is the frightened judge who is about to try a complex criminal case in which a Jew, some Stormtroopers and the Gestapo are involved. He knows that whatever judgment he makes it will be the wrong one, and he will be made the scapegoat.