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A CurtainUp LondonReview
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Never fall in love during a total eclipse.
--- Senex
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Hamish McColl as Hysterium, Des Barrit as Pseudolus, Sam Kelly as Senex and David Schneider as Lycus. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

This most idiosyncratic of Sondheim musicals comes to London where many of the audience remember the original British BBC television programme of the 1960s. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, London comedian Frankie Howerd, as the slave Pseudolus, sent up life in a fictitious street in Ancient Rome with its bizarre mix of knowing slaves, nubile wenches, young blade and bombastic soldier. The whole is a brilliantly funny evening of simple pleasures, nothing too challenging, but colourful and as easy on the eye as the pretty girls.

The course of true love never did run smooth and Pseudolus is called upon to help his master Hero (Vince Leigh) win the beautiful Philia (Caroline Sheen) who has been promised in marriage to the general, Miles Gloriosus (Philip Quast) by Lycus (David Schneider), a buyer and seller of courtesans. Hero's father, Senex (Sam Kelly) has his own designs on the lovely Philia and Hero's mother, the battleaxe Domina (Isla Blair) has her own chariot and agenda.

The show opens with a big bang and the well known song, "Comedy Tonight". I adored Quast's rendition of "Bring Me My Bride" but musically, while pleasant enough, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum isn't the kind of show which sends me straight out to buy the CD.

Choreographic interest is provided by an energetic troupe of young men, the Proteans, (Darren Carnall, Peter Caulfield, David Lucas, Graham MacDuff, Michael Rouse, Matthew Wolfenden) whose gyrations, especially in the acrobatic ladder move, thrill. Their quick change has them exit as courtesans and re-enter, in a flash of a costume change, as Roman soldiers. This isn't the musical for hard line feminists as many of the jokes are of the dumb blonde variety, the winsome Philia is challenged in the cerebral cortex department. Lycus, who incidentally has been wigged and robed to look as if he has walked off a Roman vase with a wonderfully ornate hair do and beard, lashings of jewellery and colourful silks, parades a selection of his human wares, the girls, among them Vibrata, the Geminae twins and Gymnasia the dominatrix, whose erotic dancing makes Pseudolus perspire with desire, "too much for an old man to bear", he opines. David Schneider as Lycus has such an expressive and physically unique face that he looks like a Roman theatrical grotesque mask and that is before the make up!

Desmond Barrit seems to be enjoying himself although there were moments when I felt Frankie Howerd is inimitable but I think Barrit will relax more as the run progresses. I loved Philip Quast's boasting Miles Gloriosus, enormously proud in his Roman soldier's outfit with a tiny skirt revealing his huge golden hairy thighs. Harry Towb almost steals the show as Erronius, a delightful, elderly gentleman who trots across the stage at intervals as if on a long march - I've quite forgotten why but it's something to do with leaving his house vacant. This is a very special part for Isla Blair, here playing Hero's feisty mother, because in 1963 in the first London production she played the young heroine Philia. The delightfully expressive Hamish McColl has much of the comic interest as Hysterium, another slave in Senex's household and his rendition while dressed as a woman of "Lovely" is a highlight of the show.

I loved the set, three zany interpretations of the houses on this Ancient Roman street and the costumes are colourful and lively. Edward Hall has had a tremendous amount of fun directing this cast and only the most stuffy of stuffed shirts could dislike this charming production. It runs at the National until November as a part of the £10 Travelex season and as such, is great value and quite silly family entertainment.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Directed by Edward Hall

Starring: Desmond Barrit, Philip Quast, David Schneider
With: Darren Carnall, Peter Caulfield, David Lucas, Graham MacDuff, Michael Rouse, Matthew Wolfenden, Sam Kelly, Isla Blair, Vince Leigh, Hamish McColl, Jane Fowler, Lorraine Stewart, Simone de la Rue, Hayley Newton, Michelle Lukes, Tiffany Graves, Caroline Sheen, Harry Towb, Alan Leith, Owain Rhys Davies, Sarah O'Gleby, Spencer Soloman
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Set Designer: Julian Crouch
Costume Design: Kevin Pollard
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music Supervisor/MD/Dance Arranger: Martin Lowe
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Many seats available at £10 - season sponsored by Travelex
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 2nd November 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th August 2004 performance at the Olivier, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Comedy Tonight / Prologus, Proteans and the Company
  • Free/ Pseudolus, Hero
  • The House of Marcus Lycus/ Lycus, Pseudolus, Courtesans
  • Lovely/ Hero, Philia
  • Everybody Ought to Have a Maid/ Senex, Pseudolus, Hysterium, Lycus
  • I'm Calm/ Hysterium
  • Impossible/ Senex, Hero
  • Bring Me My Bride/ Miles, Pseudolus, Courtesans, Proteans
Act Two
  • That Dirty Old Man/ Domina
  • That'll Show Him/ Philia
  • Lovely / Pseudolus, Hysterium
  • Funeral Sequence and Dance/ Pseudolus, Miles, Courtesans, Proteans
  • Comedy Tonight (Reprise)/Pseudolus & Company
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