Review: Guys and Dolls Shimmers in New Immersive Production in London

The Bridge Theatre revives Frank Loesser’s classic with a moving canvas.


Opened in late 2017, the Bridge Theatre in central London has already left a hefty mark on the transatlantic theater scene, shipping the likes of Laura Linney-led My Name is Lucy Barton over to Broadway, while giving New Yorkers a taste of Ralph Fiennes and metropolitan mania in Straight Line Crazy. But after five and a half years, it’s done something notable: the Bridge finally programmed its first musical.

This isn’t just a first for the Bridge, but also a major moment for director (and the Bridge’s AD) Nicholas Hytner, who, despite having brought us the likes of Miss Saigon and the Tony Award-winning 1994 Carousel, hasn’t directed a musical in over 20 years (the last being the John Lithgow-led Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway). The question underpinning all of this, given this hugely impressive new revival of Frank Loesser, Jo Sterling, and Abe Burrows’s Guys and Dolls, is why has it taken them so long?

To poach a line from Loesser devotee Stephen Sondheim, you gotta get a gimmick – and the Bridge’s gimmick is to imagine Guys and Dolls as an “immersive” production, with standing audience members milling around performers on a hydraulic-powered platforms. As Miss Adelaide, Sky Masterson, Nathan Detroit, Sarah Brown and co bustle around designer Bunny Christie’s neon streets of New York (imagine the set for Company, another Christie creation, but on a bucketful of steroids), the stage rises and falls between sequences – with an army of adept stage-hands discretely removing scenery and props.

It means a few hundred standing punters spend the entire duration of the show deeply enmeshed in the events of Detroit and his gambling woes, being pushed aside by sweaty crabs players or watching sultry numbers at nearby cabaret joint the Hot Box. It’s certainly a novel approach and pays off in spades. In a less successful staging, having Cedric Neal’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson belting “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down” at audience members after they’ve been stood for three hours could come across as a bit misjudged – but the sheer ebullience of Hytner’s vision generates a certified thrill-ride from start to end.

As a bona fide Bard veteran, it’s no surprise that Hytner directs Loesser, Sterling and Burrows’ work like a Shakespearean comedy. At its core though, that’s exactly what Guys and Dolls is – from mismatched couples like Masterson and Brown to prolonged engagements between Adelaide and Detroit, right the way onto farcical wagers between Detroit and Masterson, you might as well rename the show The Merry Wives of West 42nd Street. Everything about the original text shimmers with comedic opportunity – served up with relentless aplomb across a versatile canvas.

This vision extends to the performances: Daniel Mays knows gambling fixer Detroit is a modern day Falstaff – a crook, yes, a villain, yes, but always with his heart in the right place, though perhaps not his wits. Wily Masterson, at the same time, is Hal – wise, dignified but ready to take on preposterous challenges for his own amusements. He’s played in one of the best stage debuts seen in years by Andrew Richardson – who weaves in a bout of sexual angst and some luscious Havana dance moves.

That said, the real revelations are, respectively, Marisha Wallace’s Adelaide and Celinde Schoenmaker’s Brown. Both delve into their characters for untapped nuance – Wallace ditching the ditziness of a typical Adelaide in favour of an earnest, empathetically flawed attachment to her commitment-phobe beau Detroit. Juxtaposing romantic consternation with sensuous Hot Box numbers (choreographed by Arlene Philips and co-director James Cousins), Wallace is sure to lap up all manner of awards nods. Schoenmaker, meanwhile, plots a very neat slide from blinkered missionary sergeant through to someone capable of seeing a fulfilled life with a reformed gambler.  The pair bring the house down with a newly revitalised “Marry the Man Today”, aided no end by musical supervisor and arranger Tom Brady.

It’s a production that, sadly, seems as though it could only ever work in the Bridge’s unique auditorium. If New York gets lucky, maybe there’s be a chance of it finding its way over the Atlantic. But for now it remains essential viewer for any UK visitor.