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Gypsy - Royal Exchange, Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
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Shameless ambition
At the start of 2019, the Royal Exchange produced Mother Courage. They are ending the year with the story of another formidable matriarch.

Melissa James (Louise) - Image Johan Persson
Melissa James (Louise) - Image Johan Persson


Brecht's tale of Mother Courage is one of survival and opportunism in the context of an ongoing war. Gypsy is set in depression-era America where Rose (Ria Jones) battles to get her daughters starring roles in vaudeville and variety.

Ria Jones superbly conveys her character's mixture of determination, desperation and razor-sharp wit. She is the Mother Superior of all stage mothers and the acts she concocts for Louise (Melissa James) and June (Melissa Lowe) are so bad that they are good - think Britain's Got Talent with extra quirkiness.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, musical, Stephen Sondheim. Ria Jones
Ria Jones (Rose) - Image Johan Persson


Does she want to empower her daughters and see their true natures and talents blossom? Or is she channelling her thwarted ambitions through her children?


: Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, musical, Stephen Sondheim. Ria Jones, Melissa James, Kate O'Donnell, Louis Gaunt
Melissa Lowe (June) - Image Johan Persson


Like Death of a Salesman and so many great American dramas, Gypsy ('suggested by the memoirs of tease-striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee') asks how much we sacrifice in pursuit of the Dream and what we do when those sacrifices don't reap the rewards we have chased.

In April 2019, the Royal Exchange staged West Side Story (it returns in April 2020), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. The book was by Arthur Laurents and the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

The same team created Gypsy (first produced in 1959) but the music is by Jule Styne, rather than Bernstein. Styne's compositions don't hit the superlative heights of Bernstein's West Side Story score. But, then again, the subject-matter demands a different kind of musical setting - with an emphasis on catchy tunes and Broadway showstoppers.

A lot of weight is placed on Sondheim's lyrics but what lyrics they are! If he uses a rhyming dictionary, it must be an extremely rare one ("Momma, please take our advice/we aren't the Lunts/I'm not Fanny Brice").

The razzmatazz and set pieces mean that the performance clocks in at 3 hours and ten minutes (including an interval). This is, after all, a show about vaudeville's last hurrah.

The dancing by Louis Gaunt (as Tulsa) is, to quote a famously Strict judge, fab-u-lous.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, musical, Stephen Sondheim. Ria Jones, Melissa James, Kate O'Donnell, Louis Gaunt
Louis Gaunt (Tulsa) - Image Johan Persson


When Louise and Rose find themselves in the dressing room of a burlesque house, we are treated to the comically camp number You Gotta Get a Gimmick (it would too outré even for The Producers ). Electra (Kate O'Donnell) finds a use for an electric saw which I'm sure is not recommended in any DIY manual.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, musical, Stephen Sondheim. Ria Jones, Melissa James, Kate O'Donnell
Kate O'Donnell (Electra) - Image Johan Persson


If you don't like musicals you will probably find Gypsy too long night at the theatre. But, if you do, it is great entertainment value, underpinned by serious issues and dilemmas. As a wise philosopher once said: "If you've got it, flaunt it!" This show, directed by Jo Davies, lets its talents bloom like a summer bouquet, despite the December chill

"Sing out Louise!"

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, musical, Stephen Sondheim. Ria Jones, Melissa James, Kate O'Donnell, Louis Gaunt
Melissa James (Louise), Ria Jones (Rose) - Image Johan Persson.
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Why? Let Sondheim’s Gypsy entertain you
When: 30 November 2019 - 25 January 2020
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester, M2 7DH
Cost: Standard Tickets from £25.50; day seats on sale at £10 each.
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