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Review of GYPSY at The Mill at Sonning

The extended stage space for this production works well for The Mill at Sonning, and a remarkable amount of set and props is brought on for certain scenes. As if that wasn’t enough work for the cast on top of the singing, dancing and dialogue, there are moments of actor-musicianship too. But this isn’t busyness for the sake of busyness: there’s a lot going on because, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’”. While the narrative falls under the category ‘drama about drama’, it pulls no punches in its portrayal of life on tour.

GYPSY: Rebecca Thornhill as Rose, Evelyn Hoskins as Louise. Photo by Andreas Lambis.
GYPSY: Rebecca Thornhill as Rose, Evelyn Hoskins as Louise. Photo by Andreas Lambis.

Set in the interwar period, much of the story in this musical retains contemporary relevance decades after its Broadway opening in 1959 – people leave Rose (Rebecca Thornhill) and her theatre company because there are better opportunities elsewhere. Vaudeville, Rose’s preferred form of live entertainment, had gone into terminal decline, at least partly thanks to the arrival of ‘talking pictures’ in cinemas, something Rose’s younger daughter June (Marina Tavolieri) presumably goes off to pursue after leaving the family trade. As for Rose, she resolutely believes, as those who pursue the American Dream tend to do, better times lie ahead. But even she eventually understands there’s no comeback, or return, or revival to be had for the vaudeville industry, and she agrees to put her older daughter Louise (Evelyn Hoskins) forward for – well, something she used to turn her nose up at.

The notion that theatremakers should never work with children and/or animals is summarily ignored by the production team, with ‘Baby June’ (a role shared between Daisy Jeffcoate, Mia Burton and Isla Jones) and ‘Young Louise’ (a role shared between Sophie Bidgood, Aimee Brain and Sophie Lloyd) dominating proceedings for the first few scenes, and there’s even a real-life dog.

Thornhill’s Rose is fairly formidable, more irritating than terrifying as a pushy parent who likes to get her own way. It is, perhaps, a tenderer Mama Rose than one might expect a larger-than-life character to be. When it really matters, though, she rises to the occasion in her big solo numbers, commanding the stage with assertiveness and confidence that may ultimately be displaced as far as her life story goes, but it’s an admirable performance nonetheless.

Charlie Waddell’s Tulsa does an impressive dance routine in the first half, whilst Rose’s boyfriend and touring agent Herbie (Daniel Crowder) is sufficiently noble and amiable, though even he has his limits, which is fair enough. The stand-out performance for me was in Hoskins’ Louise, a bashful and uncertain young lady put in the spotlight by an ever-eager mother and a desperate stage manager at a provincial cabaret venue, who becomes increasingly self-assured until Mama Rose is surplus to requirements in every way. It’s an extraordinary and entirely convincing transformation, as well as a pushback against what would probably be termed these days as psychological abuse: the fire in her eyes and voice is palpable.

It’s never a bad thing when a show that lasts two hours and forty-five minutes (there is an interval) feels considerably shorter. It’s also worth pointing out, as it’s such an intrinsic part of The Mill at Sonning experience, the two-course meal included with every ticket: ‘dinner theatre’ is a more popular concept in the United States than it is in Blighty. The buffet-style main course allows patrons to have as much or as little as they wish (though don’t overdo it on the gravy, or your walk back to your table, plate in hand, ends up being more precarious than necessary).

Nic Farman’s lighting design is exquisite, coming into its own in the scenes on various stages where Louise makes her mark as ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’. Warnings about the price of pursuing fame and fortune are writ large in this slick and engaging production, which might well have otherwise been called How Not To Parent. Worth seeing.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

‘Gypsy’, the story of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and her ultimate showbiz mother, Rose boasts a fabulous score by Jules Style and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, including the memorable songs ‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘You Gotta Have a Gimmick’, ‘Some People’ and ‘All You Need Is The Girl’. This eagerly awaited production will be created by director Joseph Pitcher, musical arranger & musical director Francis Goodhand, design by Jason Denvir, costume design Natalie Titchener, lighting Design Nic Farman, Sound Design Chris Whybrow, casting Pearson Casting.

Joining the previously announced Rebecca Thornhill as Mama Rose and Evelyn Hoskins as her
daughter Louise are: Daniel Crowder (as Herbie), Samuel How (LA), Buna McCreary-Njie (Kansas), Tim Maxwell-Clarke (Pop), Peter Nash (Tulsa), Seren Sandham-Davies (Agnes), Marina Tavolieri (June), Laura Tyra (Tessie), Susannah van den Berg (Mazeppa), Joseph Vella (Yonkers), Natalie Winsor (Electra).

The children are played by
Baby June: Daisy Jeffcoate, Mia Burton, Isla Jones
Baby Louise: Sophie Bidgood, Aimee Brain, Sophie Lloyd
Newsboy: Avi Kruijt, Sacha Yarwood, Samuel Logan, George Clarke, Joshua Rowe, Harley Coles

Musicians: Joe Atkin-Reeves Woodwind, Callum White Drums and Percussion, Alexia Barbera Double Bass

Creative Team:
Joseph Pitcher Director & Choreographer
Jason Denvir Set Designer
Francis Goodhand Musical Arrangements/Musical Director
Natalie Titchener Costume Designer
Nic Farman Lighting Designer
Chris Whybrow Sound Designer
Casting by Pearson Casting CDG
Associate Choreographer Alex Christian
Children’s casting Amber Edlin

A Musical Fable, Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee

Directed by Joseph Pitcher

The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Sonning Eye Reading RG4 6TY
24 May – 15 July

Original Production by
David Merrick and Leland Hayward
Entire production originally directed and
choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Gypsy is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd

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