Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, breezes into the Olivier Theatre for the summer season. Edward Hall’s highly entertaining and outrageous new production explodes with comic invention and is performed by a dynamic ensemble led by Desmond Barrit as Pseudolus, the crafty Roman slave. Barrit delivers a performance to treasure: his manipulation of the other characters is laser sharp as is his comic timing. His rapport with the audience is magical.
The book is a clever synthesis of plots from the pen of the Roman comic playwright Plautus, including The Haunted House, Pseudolus and Miles Gloriosus. The plot follows Plautus’ standard structure – while the Master and Mistress are away, sons and slaves will play – resulting in more and more intricate cover-ups when they return. When Senex and Domita go to the countryside to visit Domita’s mother, their slave Pseudolus decides to help their son Hero to elope with Philia, a virgin from Crete living in Lycos’ ‘House of Women’ next door. Pseudolus’ continual attempts to bring Hero and Philia together and then to cover up the plot when first Senex and then Domita return result in a series of comical misadventures, cover-ups and twists.
The musical successfully adapts the traditions of Roman low comedy to the 20th century conventions of American musical comedy/vaudeville. Though these traditions are centuries apart, they have strong similarities, notably romantic plot entanglements and up front delivery. The score includes some of Sondheim’s most exuberant music and witty lyrics and positively sparkles from the opening number "A Comedy Tonight" to its reprise at the final curtain.
Where this new production scores is in Hall’s addition of British ingredients to this Roman/American brew: Music Hall and the camp mock–epic style of the 1965 movie Carry on Cleo and the late sixties TV series Up Pompeii (which was itself based on Plautus and which starred the late Frankie Howerd – who played Pseudolus in the musical’s 1963 London premiere). Indeed the whole production is given a sixties style: including black and white cutout Roman statues and chariots; garish make-up and costumes; ladies’ quasi Roman/sixties’ hairstyles;and Paul Anderson’s nostalgic bright, colorful lighting and ubiquitous follow spots.
The dialogue and lyrics are uniformly played to their full comic potential by the ensembleas are the costumes, set, props, trap doors, special comic props and even the revolving Olivier stage. Rob Ashford’s vaudevillian choreography is equally comically inventive. The standout is "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," with Des Barrit. The excellent Sam Kelly plays his master Senex and the most cuddly lecher ever to be seen on stage. David Schneider’s brilliantly oily Lycos and Hamish McColl’s effeminate Hysterium are consistent comic joys. Also impressive are the hilariously mega-macho entry of Miles Gloriosus (an impressively pompous Philip Quast) and the burlesque send-up "House of Lycos" where Lycos’ ladies demonstrate their talents, reminiscent of the "You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick" number from the earlier Jules Styne musical Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.
Reviewed from the first preview, it must be admitted some singing was rather hesitant and several comic moments (uncharacteristically for this cast) underplayed. But this is nonetheless an outstanding production, which will surely grow in comic stature as the run progresses.