The art of acting, at its best, is a way to lift an audience out of one reality and deposit them in another. It can take us to worlds of the imagination, but the more fantastic those worlds are, the trickier it is to pull off. Our suspension of disbelief can be easily destroyed through one false note, one cheap special effect, or one American actor asked to produce a Cockney accent. There are limits to how far the magic of acting can take us, and one could be forgiven for thinking that asking fresh-faced Oxford undergraduates to portray cynical 1930s New York gangsters finding true love might just exceed that limit.
It is as well, then, that Pembroke College’s production of Guys and Dolls know its limits, and has a lot of fun within them. There is no attempt to convince us that this is a true portrayal of the world in which it is set – to the contrary, the audience is invited to laugh at little Oxford in-jokes scattered throughout, to smile at unusual bits of set dressing and to generally join in the musical’s sense of fun and whimsy. The cast’s ‘New Yoik’ accents add to the atmosphere and requisite swagger without being stretched to ridiculous lengths – there’s a lot of variation between characters, but it’s a choice that saves matters becoming too painful.
The plot of Guys and Dolls itself is fairly silly, but the musical lives in its characters and in its songs, both of which come across well here. All four leading roles are well cast and played with panache, particularly Alex Tsaptsinos and Ellie Shaw as the world-weary couple of Nathan Detroit and his long-term fiancée Adelaide, while the supporting characters provide excellent comic relief and background distraction. The musical balance between orchestra and singers is not always perfect, particularly in quieter moments, but most of the major musical set pieces come together with panache. Of the two songs newcomers to the musical are likely to know, “Luck Be A Lady” is a little lacking in excitement, but “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat” more than makes up for it as a particular highlight, well-staged and full of energy.
This production undoubtedly has some minor flaws, with a slight lack of confidence in the orchestral accompaniment and some unnecessarily complicated set changes for a restricted auditorium space, but the cast’s general enthusiasm carries the day with enough assurance to deal with the occasional hiccup. Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining performance of a toe-tapping, feel-good musical, certain to leave you with a smile on your face and a catchy refrain in your head.
PHOTO / Magnus Rowbotham