Encore!

THEATRE: Guys and Dolls; Olivier, RNT, London

Look, I don't want to go overboard about Richard Eyre's production of Guys and Dolls in the Olivier, so let's just put it this way: Do yourselves a big favour. Take your family. Take other people's families. Take your street. Then go again. Got that?

The slight worry beforehand had been that lightning would fail to strike twice. When Eyre first directed Loesser's matchless musical at this address back in the early 1980s, the production became both a hit and myth. Would this Mark 2 version labour with a counterproductive strenuousness to outdo Mark 1, in the manner of the wannabe macho Cuban dancer who - in the production's utterly hilarious Havana night-club scene - flings himself around a female partner more than twice his height like some mad competitive midget in an exhaustingly misguided attempt to prove that size isn't everything?

Well, there's the odd moment where you feel that less would be more. But, on the whole, the parts where the old production went for broke and where this new production goes for broke and then some send you into transports of delight. Nicely-Nicely's "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat", backed by the Mission dolls and the fraudulently born-again gamblers, can be relied on to take the roof off even in ropey productions. Here, though, Eyre has done something that would have been less thinkable in 1982: he's cast the winningly overweight black actor, Clive Rowe, as Nicely-Nicely and a female double, Sharon D Clarke, as the Salvation Army Governor.

At once revelling in and sending up the wild feel of a black revivalist meeting that he can bring to this sequence, Rowe takes you to giddy heights and then takes you further, so that by the third of the increasingly uninhibited encores, he's letting rip with this wonderfully joyous descant on the tune. Three times the Mission folk, after going ravingly AWOL, drop back demurely, and as one, into their chairs as if nothing has happened and three times they leave the audience still levitating. For any man (apart, one hears, from Sting), this sequence is the closest he'll get to multiple orgasm.

As Adelaide, the permanent, psychosomatically flu-ridden fiancee, Imelda Staunton is just about perfection, capturing with a vividness that never coarsens into caricature the fact that Adelaide is both an incurable romantic and a hopeless realist, in all senses of the word "hopeless". A lot will be written of her knockout rendition of the "Hotbox" numbers, but it's the quieter moments I'll remember with as much gratitude - like the infinitely touching and funny way in which grief and a rotten cold make her unable to complete the final line of the reprise of "Adelaide's Lament", or the way she clutches Nathan's hand with a hilarious, tearful, motherly pride at the unearned compliments sent by her mother in a letter to this supposed son-in-law.

Henry Goodman's Nathan Detroit, an all-day panic attack in two-tone shoes, will be still funnier when he tries, just fractionally, less hard. Equally with him, one recalls a quiet moment with as much pleasure as all the hyperactivity: he takes the high notes near the end of the song "Sue Me" with such gentle ardour that they reinforce your impression that Nathan is genuinely more sensitive than the other guys and that he really does, by his own scared, defensive lights, love Adelaide.

Clarke Peters, as Sky Masterson, was not in best voice on Tuesday, lending a certain insecurity to the tricky harmonies he has to achieve with Joanna Riding's marvellous Sarah. But, look, who's counting? For all kinds of reasons, I want to go back. Not least for the sight of Stanley Townsend's ugly hulk of a Big Jule transformed, Wizard of Oz-fashion, into an improbably strapping senorita in the Havana dancing sequence, irresistibly reminding this member of the audience of the photograph of Oscar Wilde in drag as Salome.

Booking: 0171-928 2252

Paul Taylor

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