A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Olivier Theatre, NT, London

Gaudy and bawdy revival lives up to the hype as a cornucopia of delight
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The rousing opening number is a brazen sales-pitch: "Something that's gaudy, Something that's bawdy, Something for everybawdy, Comedy tonight!" But the knowing cheek of it is simply irresistible. Besides which, as Edward Hall's blissfully hilarious Olivier revival now demonstrates, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum succeeds in living up to this hectic hype.

With an entire chorus emerging from a theatrical wardrobe basket and a climactic high-kicking line-up five minutes in, the musical prelude here comes over as a rip-roaring finale.

And that's as it should be, because this 1962 Broadway musical - boasting a glorious gag-fest of a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and the first score for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the tunes as well as the lyrics - gives a spiffy, spoofing American vaudeville spin to the Roman farce conventions of the dramatist, Plautus, a third century BC guy who had earlier helped Shakespeare out with the plot of Comedy of Errors.

A delirium of good, clean, filthy fun, the plot is propelled by the wily, manipulative slave Pseudolus who has to struggle with the escalating complications that ensue when he attempts to secure his freedom by securing a match between his master's blond, dimwitted, virginal son Hero (Vince Leigh) and the even blonder, dimmer and more virginal courtesan Philia (Caroline Sheen).

The course of true chicanery never did run smooth and the premature return of his master, not to mention the grandiose arrival of the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus (a ludicrously thick, muscly-thighed and macho Philip Quast) who has already bought but not collected Philia, are not kind to the collective blood-pressure on stage.

The delicious thing is that, at the centre of this cartoon heterosexual frenzy we have the incomparable figure of Desmond Barrit, playing Pseudolus, constantly tipping the wink that we're watching a piece of theatre, and as incongruously camp as row of Welsh wigwams. To use a nice Roman word, this is a cornucopia of delight.