The Frogs (Jermyn Street Theatre)
(seen at the afternoon performance on 26th March 2017)
The place is ancient Greece, the time is the present, the music is Sondheim, the writers Shevelove / Aristophanes and Nathan Lane. That probably explains everything you need to know.
The UK premiere of this 1974 (and much revised since) Yale Swimming Pool musical is simply Dionysos and slave Xanthias’s quest to bring George Bernard Shaw (yes, that George Bernard Shaw) back from Hades to help mankind. After help from Dionysos’s masculine half-brother Herakles, an encounter with ferryman Charon and finally ending up in the palace where the great literates reside… they encounter Shakespeare, stage a Bard / Bernard “lit-off” and that’s the tale. More or less. Except that Dionysos doesn’t like frogs and gets closer to them than he’d like.
Done with pace and gusto, you can get away with almost anything. And this crowd really almost do. Michael Matus may not be as corpulent a Dionysos as Nathan Lane, but he has a deft comic timing and lighter touch that works, particularly introducing the updated jokes. Sidekick Xantias (George Rae) makes Adrian Mole look masculine, but has a sex appeal to which Virilla the Amazon (Li-Tong Hsu) gives willingly – her line in persuasion pretty neat, though.
Best of the comic scenes go to Herakles (Chris McGuigan) whose hairy huskiness fills the stage, and Charon (Jonathan Wadey), a sort of Russell Brand with a brain, and superior line in wit, for sure.
There’s also good work from Pluto (Emma Ralston) who probably brought her own accessories and will probably keep the costume that goes with them – she seemed to get enormous pleasure from her scenes. Lost love Ariadne (Bernadette Bangura) has a sweet yeaning presence too.
Nigel Pilkington (Shakespeare) and Martin Dickinson (George Bernard Shaw) make a strong team, both having impressive abilities with the text of their characters, as well as imaginative movement to bring them to life as spoken.
Add a neat quintet of musicians and a functional set of stepped platforms, and the result is a highly satisfactory first encounter for the UK of an obviously difficult piece.
The music more than hints at the later “Into The Woods,” the script at the multiple contributors, but it’s a rare chance to see, and a cheering company to see it with. Worth it, if you managed to get tickets.