Chicago

Wed 20th – Sat 23rd November 2013

reviews

Stephen Hyde

at 09:59 on 21st Nov 2013

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Chicago as a piece of musical theatre is disconcertingly enjoyable. Early on in the show, we are told by one of the characters that “in this town, murder’s a form of entertainment” and as an audience we’re supposed to roll with that. The play charts the story of some pretty unpleasant people: there’s Roxie Hart (Georgina Hellier), a rather unhinged, fame-hungry housewife who cheats on her husband then shoots her lover dead; there’s Velma Kelly (Josie Richardson), a dangerously sexy vaudeville star who murders her own sister and her husband after finding them in bed together; and there’s Billy Flynn (Andy Laithwaite), the suave, manipulative lawyer who will gladly get these criminals acquitted so long as he gets rich in the process. The only really ‘nice’ character is Roxie’s good-natured, simple-minded husband Amos Hart (Luke Rollason), and– let’s face it – he’s just a bit of a wet rag.

And yet despite the musical’s highly stylised air of detachment, Jack Sain’s production of Chicago manages to bring a real subtlety and depth to Kander and Ebb’s razzling, dazzling depiction of 1920s Jazz Age Chicago. Nothing was overplayed, nothing was overdone, and this was to the show’s great credit.

The direction and design were particularly impressive. It was a brave decision to have the stage run through the centre of the auditorium with the audience either side but, for the most part, it paid off and lent the show a real intimacy. Having the band separate from the action (as opposed to being the centre-piece of the stage as in the Broadway revival) was also a great move. The stage could be sparse when it needed to be and this gave the poignant moments real dramatic weight, something which is often lost in professional productions of Chicago. Throughout, the show managed to strike a balance between spectacle and minimalism. The costumes were fantastic; they were well co-ordinated and at times lavish, but never for the sake of it. There were very few sequins or fishnets to be had, the costume designer (Anusha Mistry) often opting for less excessive, monochrome outfits for the showgirls which could still be provocative without being obvious and unoriginal. The lighting design also provided the audience with an opulent visual display. Particularly effective was the use of spots, not least when Velma made her first cat-like entrance, the switching spotlights acting like an old film reel, flickering us back into a bygone era.

Katherine Skingsley’s choreography also deserves high praise. The routines were stylish and incredibly slick, most notably ‘Cell Block Tango’ and ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ which both had brilliant pace. The use of levels was very clever and the dances always made the most of what was essentially a very simple set: just three wooden blocks which could take on many different configurations and which fitted neatly into one another. The contrast between Roxie’s large podium for ‘Roxie’, the song where she begins to realise her dream of stardom, and Amos’ small podium for ‘Mr Cellophane’, where he begins to acknowledge his own insignificance, was especially effective. In terms of acting, these also happened to be the two standout numbers of the evening.

There were no weak links in the cast and each actor inhabited their role well, but some performances were particularly worthy of note. Luke Rollason as Amos Hart was very good indeed. His hunched and inward physicality matched the character of Amos perfectly; his lines were clearly delivered and his comic timing well judged. The accents of the entire cast were surprisingly strong, but his was one of the best. Josie Richardson as Velma also had much to recommend her, not least her singing voice, which was to die for. Again, all the principals had excellent voices (Andy Laithwaite as Flynn sounded quite a lot like Michael Bublé, which can only be a good thing) but hers stood out: jazzy, husky and goddam sexy. But above all, Georgina Hellier as Roxie was just stunning. She oozed sex appeal in a subtle and understated way, whilst at the same time managing to bring out Roxie’s vulnerable side very sensitively. She was captivating to watch and continually demanded the audience’s attention. If anyone stole the show, it was her.

The only criticism I would have is that some parts of the show lacked energy and lines were occasionally lost. The latter was clearly one of the pitfalls of having essentially two audiences, but the balance between the band and the actors was quite often unequal, with bits of dialogue and chorus singing being drowned out. I think first night nerves may well have affected the energy levels in places, but I have no doubt this will pick up as the run goes on.

Chicago is a very ambitious musical to stage, but Fools & Kings Theatre Company rises to the challenge admirably. Jack Sain’s sophisticated direction is evident throughout and there is much about this production that is very impressive. If you have a ticket, hold on to it – you should definitely see this.

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