If you walked into Show Boat knowing nothing of the story, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in for two and a half hours of musical reparations. Groaning slaves stumble about the stage, staggering under the weight of huge cotton bales, while the portly, beetle-browed white man cracks the whip. But don’t worry – this show is no grimly moral, finger-wagging tale. Show Boat is about love: love between men and women; love between friends; love between parents and children. After the first five minutes, the only cotton in evidence is in the faded painted name of the gloriously dilapidated Show Boat itself, the Cotton Blossom, which dominates the stage for much of the first half.
The story centres on a group of river show folk, run by the ebullient yet hen-pecked paterfamilias Captain Andy Hawks, eking out an existence entertaining the locals as they travel up and down the Mississippi. When innocent daughter Magnolia falls for and marries the nomadic Gaylord Ravenal, everybody except her mother, Parthy, is delighted. But, as Sandra Marvin’s Queenie dolefully but tunefully predicts, Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.
Peppered with familiar, rousing tunes such as Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, the show roisters happily along in spite of the heartache. Gina Beck plays Magnolia with more than a touch of Anne Shirley, bringing charm, spirit and a wonderfully soaring voice to what could otherwise be a rather insipid role. Alex Young and Danny Collins display great comic flair as the peppy Schultz pair, and Sandra Marvin plays Queenie with attitude and all-embracing warmth. Rebecca Trehearn gives a star turn as the devoted Julie; the tantalising glimpse of her, bitter, sozzled and almost unrecognisable in the second act makes one almost wish that this had been her story.
The staging is in the round, which for such a naturalistic, busy and intimate play works very well. The set is beautifully designed, and makes full use of the technology available in such a modern theatre as the New London (Gillian Lynne Theatre). The sound is generally full-bodied and clear, although when the actors leave the stage to mill around the floor it occasionally becomes a little tinny.
The show is a manageable two hours and forty minutes, including the interval, but the second half still feels slightly over-long and the ending meanders rather. Director Daniel Evans has wisely resisted the urge to meddle with the original text and plot too much, meaning that the show is certainly very much of its time; the N word is tossed around with gay abandon, and the premise of the storyline is essentially that women, unless they are nagging viragos, will inevitably be treated badly by their menfolk. Viewed through modern eyes, Gaylord’s prodigal return at the end of the show is particularly galling. Nevertheless, Show Boat is a joyful feast for all the senses. All aboard for a West-End show with real heart.
Review by Genni Trickett
The ground-breaking classic musical Show Boat sails into London’s West End for the first time in almost 20 years, direct from a hugely successful and critically acclaimed run at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
Set against the backdrop of America’s Deep South at the turn of the 20th Century, Show Boat tells a powerful story of freedom, loyalty and above all, love. The shows Broadway premiere in 1927 changed musical theatre forever and this lavish new production proves that its timeless themes and peerless music remain as vital, passionate and moving as ever.
So hop on board the Cotton Blossom show boat and be swept away by one of the most romantic musicals of all time, directed by Daniel Evans and featuring the timeless songs O’l Man River, Make Believe and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man from Jerome Kern with lyrics and book by Oscar Hammersmith.
New London Theatre
166 Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5PW
Currently booking to 7th January 2017