Gypsy – Chichester Festival Theatre

Theatrepaws review, 26 October 2014

“You Gotta Get a Ticket”.

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When Imelda Staunton battles onto the Chichester Festival stage, you could be forgiven for at first feeling underwhelmed. Rose Hovick (Momma Rose) is drab, diminutive and like the apartment in which she later performs her opening number (Some People), a little dowdy. Less Ethel Merman, more Mrs Overall. But there’s a delicious hint of what’s to come when, faced with a child covered entirely in balloons threatening to upstage her daughter Dainty June, she takes out a hatpin like she’s unsheathing a dagger. If looks could kill…

Staunton won the 2013 Best Actress Olivier Award© for her portrayal of Mrs Lovett in another Chichester Festival production, Sweeney Todd. If she repeats that success as Rose Hovick depends on two factors; firstly will Gypsy transfer to a West End Theatre (a prerequisite for nomination), and secondly, will the other nominees seek out and kill her in time? Because they’re going to have to.

Staunton brings such guts and bravery to Momma Rose that it’s impossible to despise her; and despicable she most certainly is. The ultimate pushy show-business parent, Momma Rose pushed so hard that one daughter, forced to dance on point at the age of two, eloped at 15 – the other became a burlesque stripper. Both were suffocated by the nightmare of a mother making her children live her own dream.

“What I got in me– what I been holding down inside of me– if I ever let it out, there wouldn’t be signs big enough! There wouldn’t be lights bright enough!” By the time Momma Rose utters those immortal lines, you can hear a pin drop (presumably a hat pin). Staunton proves every bit as big and ballsy as Merman, let there be no doubt.

Behind the greasepaint and limelight beats the dark heart of the American Dream at its very worst. Despite the scrolling marquees and razzamatazz, Gypsy is so bleak that that at times one has to pinch oneself to remember that this is a true story.

Staunton describes playing the part as like “competing in my own mini-Olympics”. But it’s not just Staunton who deserves plaudits. Gypsy is a masterclass of writing, direction and performance that render this harridan’s story as horrific as it is spellbinding – like a terrible accident that you can’t look away from. Staunton’s Rose Hovick is part Mommie Dearest, part Rose West. Hearing her shout “Sing out Louise” brings a shiver to the spine. One can only imagine the terror it inspired in her daughter.

There are deliciously funny moments – any woman who furnishes her entire kitchen by stealing cutlery from the local Chinese restaurant is my kind of woman. There are stand-out comic set pieces – one a panto-like farm sequence with June, her Farmboys and a cow, during which Staunton inadvertently steals the show by simply trying to move a chicken on wheels – with achingly funny results. The other propels June into Burlesque (Gotta Get a Gimmick) performed with sass by Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand as three deliciously ropey strippers.

Dan Burton sings and dances (All I Need Is The Girl) like a young Gene Kelly, oozing masculinity through sublime Stephen Mear choreography. I have a feeling if the Olivier committee ever bring in an award for Best Featured Dancer, then Burton’s got it in the bag. Gemma Sutton and Lara Pulver excel as Rose’s long-

suffering daughters, and its credit to their acting strength that they aren’t completely blown off the stage at times by their mother. Kevin Whately (TV’s Lewis) makes a credible and likeable Herbie, supported by a company who work their socks off.

With the combined talents of Jule Styne (Music), Stephen Sondheim (Lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (Book), its small wonder that Gypsy is widely acknowledged as one of the great oeuvres of American Musical Theatre. Gypsy takes no prisoners. The show is littered with sparkling dialogue and show stopping songs. It sings to anyone who has ever dreamed and ever failed. Momma Rose sums up her desperation late in Act Two:

“You wanna know what I did it for? Because I was born too soon and started too late, that’s why! With what I have in me I could have been better than any of you!”

Staunton’s greatest triumph is that even at her most monstrously selfish, we never doubt that she loves her children. She is simply ruthless in pursuit of success. It is perhaps because we can all relate to her feeling of unfulfilled destiny that Gypsy is so hugely moving and so utterly chilling.

Gypsy plays at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 8th November 2014
http://www.cft.org.uk/gypsy
A West End Transfer surely beckons