Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Theatre review: The Frogs

Well into the realm of Stephen Sondheim marginalia, it sounds as if the original 1974 version of The Frogs was never even meant as a full musical. Sondheim and Burt Shevelove took Aristophanes' comedy and built a short revue out of it, not very well-received and soon becoming an obscurity. Nathan Lane then took that revue and expanded it into a full-length show in 2004, Sondheim bulking it up with seven new songs. This, too, was poorly received and went back to being a footnote, but the Jermyn Street Theatre now gives it another try, inspired by the bleak state of current affairs that mirrors the premise of Aristophanes' original: Dionysus (Michael Matus,) god of theatre and wine among other things, despairs at the state of the world and decides people need a great mind like Bernard Shaw to boost their spirits while showing them the error of their ways.

Dionysus takes his slave (he prefers the term "PA") Xanthias (George Rae) on a mission to the Underworld, to bring Shaw back from the dead.

Along the way they get some advice from Herakles (Chris McGuigan,) discover that Hades is a lot more fun than it's made out to be, ruled as it is by Pluto as a dominatrix (Emma Ralston) and, after we discover that Dionysus has a phobia of frogs, he gets attacked by a Chorus of them. The fact that this took as its basis an already-weird ancient Greek play and then put it through numerous different rewrites and reinventions is apparent in a story that's odd, disjointed, and in trying to hit a number of different moods never really pulls off any of them. Specifically, this sees the first act full of cheesy jokes that struggle to land, and the second attempts something a bit more dramatic as Shaw (Martin Dickinson) and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) have a battle of wits over which playwright should get resurrected - a more thoughtful tone that doesn't sit well with what's come before, and starts to drag.

But the cast of Grace Wessels' production use a lot of this as an opportunity to give endearingly silly performances, none more so than Jonathan Wadey's Beetlejuice-like Charon. And of course you've got Sondheim's music, well-performed, providing a touch of class. They're not classics, but there's some entertaining tunes - the opener "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" I'm sure must turn up in any number of compilation shows as it warns the audience against antisocial behaviour. Most of the songs are pastiches but once we get to "Ariadne" and the title song there's a trademark Sondheim sound to them.

Gregor Donnelly's bronze set makes good use of the limited space, although the all-black theme for the costumes is a bit dull, and it makes no sense when there's so many punchlines about Dionysus wearing Herakles' lion-skin cloak - including references to fireside rugs and the suggestion that he's killed the cast of The Lion King - not to even attempt to make it look like a lion. Rae's sweet Xanthias is also a regular scene-stealer in the first act, so the fact that he's offstage for much of the second is another reason it loses momentum. There are entertaining moments and some good songs, but Lane admits in a programme note that his attempt to bulk out a slight piece ended up overstuffing it, and he's not wrong.

The Frogs by Aristophanes in a version by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane is booking until the 8th of April at the Jermyn Street Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: David Ovenden.

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