First Night: Gaudy, bawdy and bright

`A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum' Regent's Park London
"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 - does everything an opening song should. It warms up the audience and sets the tone of the show.

Mind you, one look at the clashing colours of Paul Farnsworth's jaunty set does that. Three higgledy-piggledy houses in lemon yellow, orange squash and shocking pink? And that is before you see 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 plot centres around Pseudolus (Roy Hudd, doing good-natured vaudevillian shtick), a slave who longs to be free, who referees the proceedings and keeps the audience up to speed. Frankie Howerd reprised his performance in the role on television in Up Pompeii, which tells you everything 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 compliment. To be precise, they are 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 genius behind Mash.

Unusually for a Sondheim musical, most of the songs do not further the plot. Instead, the perfectly constructed comedy is peppered with numbers that are witty illustrations of character or situation. 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 virgin who has been sprung by Pseudolus from the home of the local prostitutes. Unfortunately, she is in love with lame-brained Hero (a sweetly fresh Rhashan Stone) son of Pseudolus's master, the ageing but married Senex, who is 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 stagings of A Funny Thing... but Talbot directs with a winning sense of heart. He also sets up a terrific running gag which 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 will not work in print: you have to be there. What are you waiting for?

David Benedict

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