I hummed and hahhed about booking this show because, deep down, gentle reader, I’m a little fed up of the trend to reinvent successful films as stage shows. The story’s already been told in one format – does it really need to be in another? I know there have been loads of great musicals as a result, but I’d really like to see something a bit more original. So at first I ignored it; then ATG tickets rang me up with an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I changed my mind. Yes, the decision to go was price-based. Still, the show sounded funny; and I’ve always got a lot of time for Robert Lindsay on stage.
Well, I’m very glad that my inflexibility didn’t get the better of me, because Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an absolute whale of a time at this show. We had seen the film before – but it had been some time ago and we’d both forgotten it. Suffice to say, we knew that we enjoyed it, but not why. I remembered it contained a couple of dirty rotten scoundrels, but that’s no great achievement when the clue is in the title. So the plot unfolded to us as a new story, which was very satisfying as it has a delicious twist at the end that came as a complete surprise.
Without giving too much away, it’s about rogue serial swindler Lawrence Jameson, who spends his summers in a fashionable French resort, conning rich ladies out of their considerable fortunes. He’s assisted in this by his accomplice, Andre, an Inspector in the local police force. But their happy little business becomes at risk when another chancer arrives on the scene, the American small time crook Freddy, who’s in the same line of work and who threatens to blow the gaff on Lawrence’s little game. To preserve his way of life, Lawrence agrees to teach Freddy the finer points of scoundreldom; and thus they end up working together, challenging each other to swindle the most money out of the next lot of victims. Into their life steps heiress Christine Colgate, and the game is on.
I’d forgotten how good Robert Lindsay is. We last saw him a few years ago at the Old Vic in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, where he was great; but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the kind of show where he really excels – a proper old-fashioned musical, with a bit of a song-and-dance, some showmanship, and some stagey razzmatazz. I first saw him in the original cast of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi in 1985 and was astounded at his ability. In fact, I think his only rival for the title of Best Charisma on Stage in a Musical is Michael Crawford. He’s one of those actors you just can’t stop watching. Every little gesture, every look, every aside, is filled with meaning – whether it be revealing something about the character, or letting you into a moment of emotion, or being just downright hilarious. The role of Lawrence is just perfect for him, allowing him to preen, pose and vain it up like a peacock, whilst being brought down to earth with regular thumps every time things don’t go his way.
Much of the fun comes from how he so nearly (but not quite) breaks the fourth wall on so many occasions, such as his look of incredulity directly at the audience when we applaud Rufus Hound for some comic business, or, after the wonderful and surreal Oklahoma number, when he offers us a silent throwaway “wtf?” You come away from the show feeling that his performance has been one long tongue-in-cheek in-joke, and all the funnier for it. Actually the script is full of quirks that teeter on the edge of normal stagecraft, teasing us with breaking the usual rules of theatre; like when Act Two begins in the same place that Act One ended, and they make fun of the fact they’re performing the same scene twice. Overall Mr L gives us a wonderful comic performance, let alone his still being light on his feet at 64 (apparently), and vocally still really strong. A true star of the stage. He is of course matched with a fantastic performance from Rufus Hound; it’s the first time we’ve seen him live and I was really impressed at his accomplished stage presence. Relishing every opportunity to look as stupid as possible, as when he is playing out the role of the brother from hell Ruprecht, or being ferociously whipped and having to mask the pain, he gives an incredibly active and physical performance, and together with Mr L they create a perfect comic partnership.
Supporting is a wonderfully funny and surprisingly tender performance by Samantha Bond on top form, as the lovelorn Muriel, always wanting to give Lawrence (masquerading as the Prince of some threatened Ruritanian province) a little more money to help his country’s fight for survival. She’s got great comic timing, and acts out a charming love story that develops with Andre; and I loved the moment when she hangs on to the disappearing balcony rail in another of those quirky stagecraft scenes. In the performance we saw, two members of the cast were indisposed so their understudies were called on, and, my word, did they give good accounts of themselves. Darren Bennett played Andre with wit and panache, and Alice Fearn was a beautiful, seemingly kind-hearted Christine Colgate, with a super stage presence and a fantastic voice. We were also really impressed with the statuesque Lizzy Connolly, who played the horrendous Jolene with enormous verve and a great sense of fun. The sets look opulent, and really reflect that sunny Riviera feeling, as do the costumes; and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is funny and engaging, bringing out the best in the talented ensemble dancers. The songs are catchy and amusing, and the book is extremely funny – all in all, it’s something of a dream combination.
An unmitigated joy – were it not for one really unfortunate blip. I had read reports earlier in the run that the sound system is not up to the job. We had presumed that, months on, all that would have been rectified by now, but no. What I suspect are really witty lyrics in most of the big numbers were absolutely lost by the imbalance of orchestra versus voice. You catch just a percentage of the words, by dint of heavy concentration and a reliance on lip-reading. You know the kind of thing – you catch significant rhyming words like, say, “map” and “crap” and your brain tells you “that’s a really funny lyric that links map and crap, I’m sure if I heard it in its entirety it would be incredibly witty”. You hear enough to keep abreast of plot development, but not enough to savour every moment. It’s a real shame; and we were only four rows from the front in Row C. I would imagine that at the back you would have been completely lost in those big set pieces. Disgraceful really, considering the prices of the seats. Fortunately the show is just so good that you forgive it.
A perfect light-hearted entertainment, deftly performed and very funny indeed. Despite the sound issues, I’d still recommend it without hesitation!