Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has been revived for what promises to be a successful Melbourne season at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In the throes of a brief preview season, it is already exuding the confidence required of mounting a fifty-year-old self-referential farce. Geoffrey Rush, here exploring the era’s Broadway flavour a near decade after tackling its British comedy totem in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, headlines as Pseudolus, narrator and participant in this stage classic. But there is a roughness around the edges that does not always go out of its way to suit the tone, and the (notably male) authors’ attempts at drawing on archetypes may not find favour in the midst of a media landscape railing against accusations of misogyny at the highest levels.

Shevelove and Gelbart’s Book is decidedly of two halves: a fairly expository comedy of manners, in which the Imperial Roman setting and conventional woo-her-to-win-her plot are established, followed by a rapid farce that threatens to tackle existing narrative complications with still more narrative complications. The second act, shorter and punchier, is the clear winner, and the first would have benefited from its virtues, particularly as such farcical elements as a preposterously heaped-up cliffhanger were already creeping in ahead of intermission. Happily, all the elements of farce pay off very well, and set-ups are carefully prepared for later use.

More interesting is the tone of the piece. While advertising itself in the opening number as “Something familiar/Something peculiar/Something for everyone/A comedy tonight!”, Funny Thing sets out to parody classical comedies by using its narrator, Pseudolus (Rush), as a knowing link between players and audience. These characters are familiar with the conventions they play out, and they want us to know it.

This presumably is why all the characters function as archetypes, if not stereotypes. While this decision is suited to the nature of the play, it does not benefit characterisation, nor does it particularly favour the female roles. At least Pseudolus and Hysterium – the other principal slave character – are imbued with substance and complexity. But the women are vapid Helens, objectified Venuses (cue ‘The House of Marcus Lycus’, a number introducing the employees of that house of ill repute, along with their carnal virtues) or voluptuous matrons. Not that the actresses – Magda Szubanski (as Domina), Christie Whelan (Philia) and five others who go uncredited on the production’s official site – live down to their parts. Indeed, they arguably out-perform the men. All but two are required to be stunningly gorgeous, all must act, all must sing, all must dance and one must even contort. Never has so little of grace or substance been given on the page that was so transformed into a shade of magnificence on the stage.

Szubanski probably fares best – and the audience’s response to her all-too-limited appearances supports this view – by taking a part that could have been written for Joan Sims and imbuing it with persistent dignity. Hers is an excellent performance as the ghastly matriarch Domina, working with little to occasionally steal the show. Shane Bourne fares well also, despite playing a stock middle-aged lecher in the form of Domina’s cowering husband Senex, because this is territory in which he can clearly mine an extensive repertoire of lads’ gags, pulled faces and knowing winks.

Miles Gloriosus, a centurion as extravagant as his surname, is played by Adam Murphy like a young, fit version of Brian Blessed (complete with booming voice), and convinces in another one-dimensional role, that of the ultimate narcissist. Murphy plays it sincerely, if comically, and the character type itself will always be a magnet for laughs. Young lover Hero is a wet fish, but Hugh Sheridan handles the part with enough dignity that the audience feels for his emotional plight. That he falls for a complete bimbo, Philia, doesn’t appear to trouble anyone, and indeed Christie Whelan’s performance quickly rises beyond Philia’s ditziness to imbue the character with a degree of sympathy.

Kudos to Gerry Connolly for his turn as brothel keeper Marcus Lycus: given little to work with, he has taken to impersonating Charles Laughton, but the impression is often so slight that something of an original foil to Pseudolus is miraculously constructed.

Though Rush gives a standout performance that fully exploits the extensive material afforded the part and which demonstrates a subtle but clear awareness of Frankie Howerd’s costumed stand-up act on Up Pompeii – a more suitable choice for his brand of physical and verbal comedy than Zero Mostel of Harold S Prince’s original Broadway production and Richard’s Lester’s 1966 film – the real accolades ought to go to Mitchell Butel as Hysterium. Reminiscent of Alan Cumming in his turn, Butel works with what is probably the most complex part in the play – he goes from antagonist to ally to apologist to effete drag act – and absolutely shines.

Production and costume design are equally terrific, both the work of the immensely talented Gabriela Tylesova. The set consists of three houses, constructed along expressionist lines and decorated to resemble Gerald Scarfe cartoons, capturing the knowing flavour of the text. Costumes are sufficiently authentic while suited to the needs of the production. The various ladies of the night – Tintinabula, Vibrata, Panacea and the Geminae – looked appropriately sexy, so much so that eagle eyes were needed from the Dress Circle to determine that they were all clad in body stockings and not thoroughly indecent. Centurion outfits were especially good, even though it’s unlikely any of them would in reality have been quite as navy blue as that of Gloriosus.

Director Simon Phillips’ staging is effective, and well matched with the design and lighting. ‘The House of Marcus Lycus’, for instance, ends with Lycus surrounded by his ladies in the shape of a love heart, a pinkish hue cast over the stage while he shines at the heart of this heart beneath a white spot. Elsewhere, blocking is lively, and the proscenium arch design of the stage is not enough to inhibit the cast from making clever use of footlights and even the aisles.

What few gaffes surfaced were dealt with very amusingly, though it’s concerning to see so much corpsing, especially from Bourne and Szubanski, at a preview performance. Magda’s recovery after a Spoonerism by staying in character, referring to a plot point as a saving grace and then taunting the audience for applauding was inspired. Later, Bourne recovered a fallen prop backstage and returned in the midst of a crucial bit of blocking, shielding his face in the hope of playing along, but the incident failed to score a laugh because almost nobody had seen him come or go. With a self-referential tone, the fluffs did not feel out of place, especially as the text was given a few brief updates to include local references. However, the elephant trampling reference should perhaps, given recent events, have been cut in the name of good taste.

As a modern staging of a politically archaic comedy, A Funny Thing succeeds. While it is arch, this is an asset. Where it stumbles is in painting its characters too thinly – especially the largely objectified women – and in wading for too long through some insipid musical numbers in the (over)long first act. Performances range from very good to excellent, and the production itself is very well handled. Several of the songs are memorable: the reprise of ‘Comedy Tonight’ had people humming in the foyer. This is an assured production despite the weaknesses of the text, and a little polish should see the discreet corpsing disappear. Overall, it represents a fun night (or matinee afternoon) out.

Should you catch a performance of the current season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Have the funnier fluffs been retained? Were new ones handled wittily? Has the level of polish increased with the benefit of subsequent performances? Please leave your feedback below.

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