What a strange little piece of theatre this is. The programme notes for the UK premiere of The Frogs contains an amusing preface from Nathan Lane. He has been the driving force for the revival of a work which made an uneasy debut in 1974 (in the swimming pool of Yale University) and languished in a bottom drawer until he was moved to dust it down soon after 9/11 and review its ‘message’.
And what is the message? Well it’s a bit scrambled, I have to say. A bit of a ‘frogs dinner’. We are sort of in 405BC, Dionysos, entertainingly played by Michael Matus, in good voice, and his faithful slave Xanthias, a rather sweetly wet George Rae, decide that something must be done to counter the untrustworthy leaders on earth. “Do something more than just deplore.” He decides that we need a good writer to ‘tell the world the truth’. In a supposedly ‘post truth’ time this is nicely resonant.
The frogs of the title are referred to as the people in charge, the ones who hate change, do not want new ideas and will support only what is good for them. Yes, I’ll go with that….but this doesn’t really develop.
Anyway, our dynamic duo sets off on a trip to the Underworld and that’s where things get more interesting. To begin with we have a fantastic performance by Jonathan Wadey as Charon, the stoned skipper of the boat who navigates our travellers down the River Styx. I think Mel Brooks would rather like him – he milked that part for every scrap of comedy and brought a strongly sinister air to this weird journey.
In Hades – hell, yes! – things really hotted up. We stumbled into a kind Berlin of the 1930s nightclub scene with much strutting, high kicking, eye-rolling entertainment. I was impressed by Emma Ralston who played Pluto in dominatrix style. Now she had a proper song to do which contained those ingredients you expect from a Sondheim musical – really good tune, cracking lyrics and the opportunity to bring some serious razzle dazzle to the proceedings. That scene really lifted the show.
The denouement – if that’s the right word – was Dionysos challenging George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare to a literary duel in order to decide who to take back to earth. Who could out do the other in terms of spoken truths, epigrams and ‘isms? As it turned out, Shakespeare had the edge on Shaw (we saw some Shavian chagrin as a result) and agreed to get into the boat, sail back up to earth and give our world the poetry it needs at this emotionally stricken time.
As a play, I’d say it needs a bit of work but the evening is full of theatrical fun – a bit panto, a bit cabaret and full of nice one-liners, some witty repartee and a couple of seriously good songs.
The absolute heroes of last night’s show were the band. Hats off to Tim Sutton for leading his tight little crew – Adam Bishop (woodwind), Oliver Carey (trumpet) and Sarah Bowler (cello) on the deck of the ship on the River Styx and creating a very strong sound. Sondheim is not an easy composer to interpret. His music is complex with uncompromising rhythms and a demand for lyrics to fit absolutely. The cast really depended on this machine on their right to keep on the straight and narrow and they were brilliant.