Musical: Bed, bawd and huge hair

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The Independent Culture
"SOMETHING THAT'S gaudy/ Something that's bawdy/ Something for everybawdy..." Written during previews over a weekend to replace the original opening song, the now famous "Comedy Tonight" - a gleeful succession of puns and punchlines with a lot of pizazz - does everything an opening song should. It warms up the audience and sets the tone of the entire show.

Mind you, one look at the clashing colours of Paul Farnsworth's positively jaunty set does that. Three higgledy-piggledy houses in lemon yellow, orange squash and shocking pink? And that's before you get an eyeful of the costumes. Director Ian Talbot's larky cast sports a Sixties rethink of Roman gingham - a sublimely silly confection of mosaics, chain belts, big sandals and bigger hair.

The deliciously complicated plot centres around Pseudolus (Roy Hudd, doing vaudevillian shtick), a slave who longs to be free, who referees the proceedings and keeps the audience up to speed. Frankie Howerd so successfully played the role that his character hopped on to television for Up Pompeii!, which tells you everything you need to know about this show's gloriously incorrect sense of humour and the hallowed age of its jokes. However, complaining that the jokes are old is a high compliment. To be precise, they're 2,000 years old. This 1962 show is based on the Roman comedies of Plautus and boy, did he know a thing or three about farce. Plus, the show's book is co-written by Larry Gelbart, the comic genius behind M*A*S*H.

Unusually for a Sondheim musical, most of the songs do not further the action. Instead, the hilarious, superbly constructed plot is peppered with point numbers, witty, perkily tuneful illustrations of character or situation. The lascivious but oddly innocent "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is immediately repeated and developed not once, but twice, and you still find yourself wishing for more. The impossibly vain and deeply stupid warrior Miles Gloriosus (the grand-voiced and very funny Peter Gallagher), marches in with his soldiers: "Left, right, left, right/ There aren't any enemies left. Right?", promptly followed by: "One, two, one, two/ We not only fought but we won, too."

Miles has been promised Philia, the lovely dumb blonde virgin who has been sprung by Pseudolus from the House of Marcus Lycus, which sounds like a fashion empire but is actually the local whorehouse. Unfortunately, she's in love with lame-brained Hero (a sweetly fresh Rhashan Stone), son of Pseudolus's master, the ageing but married Senex, who's also in love with Philia. Several surprises and disguises later, everything resolves into a happy ending.

It must be admitted that there will be crisper, more detailed stagings of A Funny Thing..., but Ian Talbot directs with a winning sense of heart. He also sets up a terrific running gag that allows the four chorus boys to steal the show, doubling as the inept soldiers and the squealing gaggle of eunuchs who bring the house down with their every reappearance. It doesn't work in print: you have to be there. What are you waiting for?

David Benedict

Booking: 0171-486 2431. In rep to 4 Sept. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper.