Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd

Book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Finborough Theatre
(2011)

The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd publicity image

Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley had had a big success with their musical, Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, in the West End in 1961 and on Broadway in 1962 with Newley and Anna Quayle in the leading roles.

The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd which followed in 1964 opened in Nottingham and starred Norman Wisdom and Willoughby Goddard. It never came to London. You wonder why? Wisdom, hugely successful in films in England and abroad, was at the height of his fame and the leading role was perfect for his “little man” persona.

Instead American producer David Merrick took the musical to America and, with Newley and Cyril Ritchard now cast in the leads, he recouped most of his money on a long tour. The show ran for 231 performances when it finally reached Broadway in 1965.

The show’s songs have been sung by such artists as Tony Bennett, Dusty Springfield, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme, Michael Buble and Barbra Streisand.

The script is an allegorical satire about the British ruling and the working classes, set within a circus framework. The Game of Life is played by two characters, Sir and Cocky, whose interaction with each other is in the time-honoured Master-Servant comic tradition which stretches from Plautus to Pozzo and Lucky.

Sir, corpulent, well-fed and rich, represents the bosses. Cocky, thin, starving and poor, represents the workers. Sir always wins because he immediately changes the rules whenever it looks as if Cocky might beat him.

The lyrics are deft. The script is literate and witty. The music is tuneful, rooted in the music hall tradition and with plenty of quick jokey references to famous Broadway musicals for the show-biz cognoscenti. The weakness of the show is the book, the story-line, the actual Game of Life.

One of the undeniable pleasures of going to the Finborough Theatre is to see the transformation of the tiny acting area. It is always amazing. This time the space has been changed into a magical mini-circus ring with ladders, pole, fairy lights, tarpaulin and a floor designed to look like a gambling table.

Ian Judge’s production, designed by Tim Goodchild and choreographed by Tim Jackson, is headed by Matthew Ashforde who plays Cocky without any of the sentimentality which was Wisdom’s trademark. Two of his songs stand out in particular: With All Due Respect and The Joker. Ashforde, who looks as if he has stepped out of an illustration by Boz, would be good casting in Dickens. Sir is played with theatrical panache by Oliver Beamish.

There is one scene for a black actor who has to play a caricature of a Negro in plantation overalls and straw hat. His reward is to sing the musical’s best song, Feelin’ Good, and Terry Doe sings it beautifully.

There is a chorus of urchins, a word which conjures up the image of the Artful Dodger, a role which the teenage Anthony Newley played in David Lean’s 1948 film of Oliver Twist. Here the urchins are played by six lively girls in Pierrot costumes and with white clown faces and black button noses.

The Finborough Theatre is now fully air conditioned.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch