Success Smells Sweet for the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 1st December 2012, matinée

There is some pretty fortuitous timing in the Arcola’s British Premiere of Sweet Smell of Success, Marvin Hamlisch’s ten year old Broadway musical version of a film from 1957.  Taking the power of the newspapers to make or break celebrities and those close to them as its theme, we can’t help but see a connection with the Leveson Inquiry, which reported on the culture, practice and ethics of the press two days before we saw this production.  Whilst the mechanics of the press might be very different today, ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ shows that some themes seem to be timeless, particularly the dubious morality that allows the desperate to be exploited by the powerful.

In its simplest form, this is a modern morality tale.  Based on a novella by Ernest Lehman, the story is reputedly (or should be say allegedly) based on Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist whose motto was ‘nothing recedes like success’.  Prophetic words indeed.  The book, by John Guare, is lean and tightly structured, with its Faustian overtones and a strong sense that this is not going to end well.  There is plenty of wit too – the opening scene where JJ Hunsecker dictates his pearls of wisdom is very funny and immediately makes us complicit.  The story centres on Sidney Falcone, a pushy press agent with naivety and ambition in equal measure.  Unable to believe his luck when JJ Hunsecker takes him under his wing, he hastily sells his soul for a spot in the column and it’s not long before things get very complicated indeed, when Hunsecker asks him to spy on his sister Susan, whom Falcone has recently befriended.

Hamlisch’s music is a perfect accompaniment and enhancement to the story.  Creating an atmosphere of film noir menace with the opening number ‘Column’ (‘Got to get in the column’ is the constant refrain), he weaves together the different strands of emotion with numbers that convey the energy and excitement of the city, Falcone’s desperate ambition, as well as the romance between Susan and musician Dallas (‘I cannot hear the city’).  Teamed with Craig Carnelia’s sharp lyrics, each numbers pushes the story forward and engages us with the characters, even the odious Hunsecker in his tribute to his sister (‘Susan’).

The Arcola is the perfect venue for conveying the dark underbelly of a busy city (no disrespect).  Dark and almost subterranean, the space is well-used by Director Mehmet Ergen and Designer Mark Bailey, with some strategically placed neon signs on the brick wall backdrop which light up in turn according to which seedy dive the action is occurring in, simple props (piles of newspapers to sit on) and bars on wheels.  The pace is snappy and although the setting is realistic there is a hint of the surreal as well, with the chorus making their first appearance rising up from below the stage to appear with just head and shoulders in a letter-box opening at the back of the stage.  Just comical enough to feel like satire, they also feel a little bit like a chorus from a Greek tragedy, dancing carefree in the bar one minute, and turning to sound a note of warning the next.  This culminates with Hunsecker’s vaudeville number, ‘Don’t Look Now’ where his song about fooling the audience provides the cover for some nefarious dealings in the city outside.  As far as the staging goes, we have one tip – head for the gallery if you can’t get into the small number of ground floor front-facing seats.  We calculated that less that half the seats in the auditorium actually faced to the front, where the action was staged, and our gamble was vindicated when we were joined by much of the audience in the second half.

Leading a strong cast, David Bamber didn’t disappoint, and was clearly enjoying his role as Hunsecker, the mean-spirited control freak.  Resisting the temptation to go over the top, this was also a touching portrayal of a man who nearly destroys the sister he claims to love by trying to ‘protect’ her, and he is able to convey both menace and pathos almost simultaneously.  As Sidney Falcone, Adrian Der Gregorian is likeable and conflicted.  As he throws away his integrity bit by bit, we can still believe until the last minute that the ‘good guy’ in him might redeem himself.  We’re not sure Stuart Matthew Price was perfectly cast as the ‘undesirable’ reformed tom cat musician Dallas, but with a beautiful voice he brings a sense of warm romance to the story.  As Susan Caroline Keiff matches him as the young woman trying to break free from her sense of obligation to her brother, and from the chorus, Tosh Wanagho-Maud shone with his singing and dancing.

This is certainly an overdue premiere for an enjoyable Broadway musical, and further proof that small venues are leading the way in bringing us a varied and healthy smörgåsbord of musical delights.  Hamlisch would surely approve had he been alive to see it.

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