Gypsy at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, December 2019.
The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is a theatrical womb that can always be trusted to serve up high-quality festivities, and this Yuletide’s production of Gypsy with its cornucopia of song, gags, costumes, amusing knick-knacks and family rows suits the season of enforced conviviality very well. The dressing up, however, hides some parcels that contained less than goodwill.
Despite a thinking punter’s alternative-to-panto feel, this is not really fayre for all the family. Younger children might enjoy the antics of the youthful contingent of the cast and their associated deliberately kitsch costumes and props, but the second half gets a bit more down-and-dirty. Though the mid-twentieth century attitudes are successfully squeezed through a twenty-first century peephole, there’s no escaping the corset-tightening truth that striptease was the stock-in-trade that eventually became the family business at the navel of this story.
This production re-wrapped a show first seen in the States in 1959 and represented many thousands of times since. Each version must find its own theatrical regalia to suit the incumbent paying public and the Exchange display uncovered a tasteful approach to stripping without revealing everything, though the teasing left something to be desired. It was one of the few components that didn’t fully ring true to the story time.
It is always difficult to satisfy contemporary concerns whilst giving the correct historical context. It has to be said that a mother touring her daughter’s strip act might be considered by some modern minds as a peculiar kind of trafficking. This was no ordinary mother. Neither the play, nor the memoir on which it is based, provide a complete exposure of the pushy parent who, according to the production programme, may have butchered a kitten out of spite, and slaughtered at least one man. Those things and other dubious attributes are not depicted and hence, in content, Gypsy is closer to Calendar Girls than Sweeney Todd.
It’s safe to take along all who can stomach well-intentioned bawdiness. It never resorts to the indecent, but has, by reason of biographical necessity, to deal with some of the seedier requirements faced by a troupe that transition from family-friendly Vaudeville to the more daring demands of Burlesque. Prepare yourself in particular for the appearance of a power tool. It can’t be missed. If it was, the consequences could be very complicated.
Despite its unsavoury and inaccurate basis, it is nevertheless a thoughtful, and at times moving, tale of how the unknown and underconfident Louise became the world-famous disrober Gypsy Rose Lee. She couldn’t have done it without her mother and wouldn’t have done it without her mother. The portrait of that mother, who is the real focus of the drama, is complex, and is consummately communicated by Ria Jones. Louise’s life line is sinuously undulating – but whose is the whip hand? The ruthlessness of the mother is set against the shifting confidence of her daughter, performed with panache by Melissa James, as she slithers off her coy insecurities and dons near-naked hutzpah.
The stranger truth in this fiction, whilst covering over some of the underlying facts, lays bare tensions familiar to many families. It is the mother-daughter dynamic (with both Louise and her younger, and initially much more confident, sister June) that drives this drama, but it is the internal motor of the matriarch that demands the most attention.
Rose Hovick’s determination that her daughters would succeed ultimately bore fruit, but not the kind she had anticipated. The bigger questions of who made what for whom are sinister decorations that deck the halls of the family home. It is down to mother and daughter to sing it out.
The lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim and bear all the tasteful trimmings of his masterful word-smithery. Depending on your youthfulness you may only recognise one or less of the tunes, but that won’t matter. The words fit the notes and the melodies suit the moves. The cast as a whole is never less than excellent.
Though not specifically a seasonal show, the theatrical sparkle of the Exchange’s interpretation had much of the merry about it. Even that Christmas stalwart – the train set – made an all-too-brief appearance. Its one lap of the stage might not have been caught by all, and while acknowledging its narrative function, limiting its contribution felt like not being allowed to fully enjoy the toy. (Come on Royal Ex – let it have a few laps during the interval!)
Theatrical subjects almost invariably lend themselves to theatrical retelling for obvious reasons. The entertainment empire is one where anyone – no matter how impoverished – can aspire to reach the top. That does, however come with the caveat that even those who attain mythical status can lose everything. There are laughs, lows and highs in Gypsy. Not all of the darkness is fully illuminated, but that is also the nature of theatre. Sometimes it hides, sometimes it reveals.
The proscenium stage where Burlesque is most often seen is a structure designed to conceal. Its antithesis is the in-the-round stage which is the performance space laid most bare. Gypsy pulls off some impressive costume changes before your very eyes, which is not quite what made her fortune. However, the ultimate striptease in this show is a hypothetical one: what really lies beneath the masquerade that is the mother of ambition? Not all truths are uncovered. If they were, we might not applaud.
The dance routines are never less than marvellously entertaining, and as always in this venue, the peculiar challenges of an in-the-round stage provoke moves that thrill in unique ways. This production is particularly good at making the spectator feel he is witnessing from within the dance.
My partner was a little disappointed with the dance content – not in quality – but in quantity. This is a relatively long show by current norms (three hours including one interval) and therefore the pace has to be sustained and there is no room for excess baggage of any kind. Thematically it is probably right that the climax is just one selfish woman and her song; but it in terms of movement and spectacle it makes for a thin culmination. Jo Davies, the director, describes this as a feelgood production. She’s right, but there is a difference between feeling good and feeling satisfied. Gypsy says her mother’s mantra is to leave them wanting more. She did.
Gypsy is certainly worth a viewing. This man of a certain age was continuously entertained but he was, however, left with a particular frustration. He would dearly have liked to see more of something he was thrilled to ogle at, but of which didn’t see anything like enough – the toy train.
Gypsy is at the Royal Exchange Manchester until 25 January 2020.
Strictly Done Dancing
Eighteen former celebrities step out one more time.
A glittering selection of historical personalities are given another chance to dance. They have one more opportunity to show the world what their lives meant, but first they must meet their allotted partners and work out their routines.
What will Fred make of Marilyn?
What will Eric’s partner think of it so far?
Will Stephen’s routine be out of this world?
Who will dance with Diana?
Will there be a winner?
Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback