I must start this review with a confession: I have never been a fan of Sondheim’s early hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
That was until yesterday when I saw Watch This company’s innovative and brilliant version of this 1962 musical at Chapel off Chapel. The story follows the slave Pseudolus in his struggle to win the hand of a beautiful courtesan, Philia, for his master, Hero, in exchange for freedom from enslavement.
As the program tells us, director Melanie Hillman has taken this comedy back to its roots, combining the 2000-year-old story from Roman playwright Plautus with the energy of classic vaudeville. But Hillman has re-framed the story through a contemporary female lens, where every character identifies as female.
It’s a bold presumption and it works in spades. Under Hillman’s skillful direction, I was presented with a show that was fast paced, hilariously funny, and where the concept of gender became irrelevant. I was caught up in the magic of theatre, simply watching characters play out their story with gusto and truth. It honestly didn’t matter who was officially male or female – I was watching real people performing at the top of their game.
From the opening where Charmaine Gorman’s Pseudolus, the freedom-chasing slave, introduces us to her world and immediately draws us into her charismatic performance, to the end of the story where the world is set to rights, we were that rare thing, a willing captive audience. Gorman’s stage presence is magical and complete, and her late father, actor Reg Gorman, would have been so proud of her performance. And while we are on the Gorman family history, it was a delight to see Gorman’s real-life mother, acclaimed actor Judith Roberts, in the role of the dotty Erronius bringing superb comic timing to her performance.
The entire cast identifies as female, as does the band, with the exception of musical director Trevor Jones, who leads a tight-knit ensemble of musos, who are often complemented by cast members Sophie Weiss, Kristie Nguy and Luisa Scrofani – talk about multi-skilling! (often referred to as a special female talent, and these ladies proved that to be so).
What impressed me was the attention to diction – I heard every word, and I can rarely say that about contemporary musicals. Each actor owned her/their character, and the necessary frenetic pace of farce with its vital entrances and exits was spot on.
Hats off also to the tech team, as while the performers were all miked, it seemed that their voices were enhanced rather than over boosted, as so often happens. Every performer could sing well, although there were a few standouts: Sarahlouise Younger (Marcus Lycus) has the best contralto range I have heard for a long time, and from the moment she sang three solo words, I was captured by the beauty of her voice; as lovelorn Hero, Milo Hartil possesses a fine jazz-inspired voice that was a real treat to hear; and Sophie Weiss (Domina) was another voice I would have been happy to listen to for hours.
Playing multiple roles and doubling in the band, Kristie Nguy was mesmerising, and the classic Sondheim harmony work was always well-delivered.
Another interesting factor of this cast was the diversity of body types and ages. At a rough guess, the age range of the cast spanned around 50 years, and each actor was perfect for her/their role. Some were sylphs and some were voluptuous women, and it was so pleasing to see this diversity in a world where women above size 12 are so often ignored, despite their talent.
While I enjoyed every performance, Charmaine Gorman’s magnetism captured me from the opening scene, where she set a high bar for her cast members, which they all reached.
So I am now a convert to the magic of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – and that’s purely due to the way Watch This! has re-interpreted this 61-year-old show, while not changing a word of it!
It’s pure stage magic, so don’t miss seeing this show, which runs until 24 September.
Photo credit Jodie Hutchinson
Julie Houghton reviewed “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, presented by Watch This at Chapel Off Chapel on September 16, 2023.