Review: Show Boat (New London Theatre, London)

I put this one off for a while. Starting its life in Sheffield at the Crucible, it was a surprise transfer to London after garnering such impressive reviews. With more or less the whole cast moving with it, it was originally intended to run until the start of 2017. Following early closing notices, I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about, and after a disappointing trip to fellow musical theatre classic Guys and Dolls the previous week, my hopes weren’t high…

Direction by Daniel Evans – Evans has done a mighty fine job as artistic director of the Sheffield Crucible and this is one hell of a production before he moved to take on the same role at Chichester Festival Theatre. From the off, this is through and through classic musical theatre but dragged into the 21st century. The overall feel is that this is an old school musical done incredibly well and with tons of class. It’s rousing in all the right places, and from the opening reveal of the Show Boat, as it chugs out from the rear of the stage, it’s clear that this is out to impress. And boy does it achieve that feat, but manages to do so in a simple and non-showy way.

Writing by Oscar Hammerstein II and Edna Ferber – With a book by musical theatre great Oscar Hammerstein II, it clearly has weight behind the story. I was completely new to the story of Show Boat, but it’s safe to say that I’ll be making return visits to future productions. The story isn’t the most straightforward (or indeed believable), but it surrounds the lives of a number of people who all started out aboard the Show Boat. It intertwines love stories, comedy, heartache and ruin to chart their progression in the early 20th century. It’s nice to see a musical with so much depth, and even though it feels a little too fleeting and jumps between topics at times, there’s plenty packed in.

Choreography by Alistair David – This isn’t a choreography-heavy show, but when it does get going it’s sure full-on. There are some impressive numbers which had my foot tapping and the floor of the New London bouncing. Special mention here really has to go to Danny Collins as Frank Schultz who carries a lot of the dance sequences and uses the comedic side of the choreography to get the audience on side.

Set design by Tom Brady – This is how to design a set. It’s simple but it’s bold. The partially built boat is used to at times make a statement on stage with glimmering lights and a rustic authenticity, and at other times it sits upstage casting a looming presence over proceedings. In fact, there’s not much going on other than the boat, and there’s absolutely no need for there to be. It’s a true testament to Evans’ direction that the staging  stays fresh and the design feels dynamic from start to finish.

Music by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern – Just, wow! What a score this is! And in the hands of this cast, it sounds phenomenal – like, really phenomenal… The performance I saw was in the final week of the run and yet it sounded like the first. It’s a real injustice that a cast recording wasn’t produced before this closed as it’s one of the finest sung productions I’ve come across.

The cast – I really don’t need to gush about this production anymore, but in putting on this production, Evans assembled some of the finest in musical theatre right now. Gina Beck as Magnolia was perfect in showing the transition from innocent daughter to scorned wife (and her voice is just incredible to listen to), Rebecca Trehearn as Julie brings down the house with her performance of Bill and adds a maturity that balances out Beck in the early scenes, and Chris Peluso as Gaylord is a brooding presence that is every bit the classic leading man. Elsewhere Malcolm Sinclair and Lucy Briers as Captain Andy Hawks and Parthy, and Sandra Marvin and Tosh Wanogho-Maud as Queenie and Joe add some much needed comedy that’s very much rooted in its time.

  • Gina Beck (Magnolia)
  • Rebecca Trehearn (Julie)
  • Chris Peluso (Gaylord)
  • Malcolm Sinclair (Captain Andy Hawks)
  • Lucy Briers (Parthy)
  • Sandra Marvin (Queenie)
  • Tosh Wanogho-Maud (Joe)

Verdict: ★★★★★

This is probably the first time I’ve used the word glorious in my life, but it’s very fitting for this production. From the design to the direction and the absolutely perfect cast, everything about this is (sorry, was…) perfect musical theatre. It’s a real travesty that shows like this struggle when others of far worse quality succeed, and I’m gutted I didn’t go earlier in the run so that I’d been able to enjoy it again (and again).

And the view…

Stalls, Row H, Seat 53. This was bought on a deal and it had a perfect view, was comfortable, had good leg room and a good rake. For this production, a thrust stage was used, but I can imagine that for a proscenium staging this seat would provide a slightly odd viewing angle. It’s also worth noting that in this theatre, the layout and row letters change frequently.

New London Theatre stalls, row H, seat 53
New London Theatre Stalls, Row H, Seat 53
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