After sell-out success at the Donmar, Sam Mendes's updated, intimate revival of this 1970 show is now in the treacherous terrain of a West End theatre more than three times as big. Mendes can now focus the action straight out front after a half-baked attempt to play all three sides of the Donmar, where sitting to the sides felt like watching the show through glass. The cast have pumped up the considerable energy level to fill the space; the choreography, which previously looked merely illustrative, now has vitality and room. Unfortunately, the enlargement also widens the production's cracks.
Some of the problems are technical. The huge back wall dwarfs the actors, who at times look marooned because it is well-nigh impossible to control the space with lighting against such a bold expanse of white. The cast now all sport head mikes but the sound projection distances the audience from the singers, who don't have to work so hard, with the result that we don't, either.
In a tiny 260-seat theatre with the audience in his lap, the notion that the action takes place in Bobby's head is effective. Here, it's a different matter. Adrian Lester's winsome Bobby seems dangerously introspective, and when he uses falsetto and almost whispers the climactic song "Being Alive", we feel slightly cheated.
Mendes's well-intentioned urge to eschew showbiz cliche robs you of the punch that the show can deliver. Several of the cast play big, bold and bright to compensate, but it's at the cost of dramatic truth.
Happily, Sheila Gish, who eats such roles for breakfast, still stops the show dead with "The Ladies Who Lunch", and Liza Sadovy as Jenny sings everyone else off the stage. Performances like these remind you what a great score it is and, actually, what a good time you're having.
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