Strolling up Jowett’s Walk, bound for a preview of the upcoming Playhouse take on The Producers, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Previews are never the full shebang; nine times out of ten they’re poorly executed, and everything can feel a bit too rough-and-ready. And so, in discovering that the Michael Pilch Studio has this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ thing going on, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
If you treat humour like a temple, or find Neil Patrick Harris tolerable, then its unlikely you’ve come across Mel Brooke’s shits and giggles masterpiece. Ironically turned into a bestselling Broadway musical, The Producers tells the tale of two desperate bozos in the Big Apple with the genius plan of scamming their investors by staging the worst show on Earth. Hilarious stereotypes come and go. Expect swastikas and gay men galore.
When you hear Oxford’s going to give slapstick a go, it’s hard not to wince. My most recent experience of Oxford comedy was up at the Edinburgh Fringe, a musical on Rawls’ Theory of Justice: far too stupid to follow anything, I feigned laughter, referring continuously to the PPE postgrad beside me. Oxford has a knack for taking itself too seriously – would my favourite farce be butchered by kids who find functionalism funny?
Fear not! The Producers is in fact in very good hands. Director Illias Thoms emphasised his vision to stage this comedy classic as “an escape” from the humdrum mechanics of intellectual theatre. Fortunately, he’s not precious either, and if anything has tweaked the script to make things more gauche.
Leading cast member Jack Herlihy, starring as larger-than-life schmuck Max Bialystock, deserves a big shout. He captures all that wheeler-dealer charm perfectly, and his Carry On Klutz rapport with fellow lead Stephen Hyde had me in stiches. Hyde, who has his whiney, nasaly, nerdy character down to a T, manages to bring out all the original Gene Wilder neuroses, whilst Philip Rigley, playing Hitler afficianado Franz Liebkind, obviously took the Basil Fawlty master-class on flamboyant Nazism.
All Broadway musicals are a feast for the eyes. It follows then that the forte of The Producers, written as a parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway, is the visual aspect; however, the Pilch Studio preview couldn’t permit much on this front. I was able to get to grips with odd song and dance: choreographically, the cast were phenomenally sharp, with seamless switches from Horah to jazz hands. Diverse and dynamic, the showtune numbers were a real treat.
My feeling, especially given that this show has had the largest budget in Oxford student production history with which to play around, is that the set will be fabulous. I am put at ease when Thoms assures me that everything from the hustle and bustle of New Yawk to 1930s moody lighting, reminiscent of Riefenstahl, has been meticulously designed. Equally, whilst the keyboard in the preview sufficed, the audience at the Oxford Playhouse have a 28-strong Big Band orchestra to look forward to. All in all, I am wholly convinced that this farce will be very far from a flop.
The Producers is showing at the Oxford Playhouse from 30th October-2nd November (3rd week). Tickets are available here.
PHOTO/ Kjetil Bjørnsrud