Move over Merman, there’s a new Momma in town! With a barnstorming performance that blows the roof off the normally calm and sedate Chichester Festival Theatre Imelda Staunton takes your breath away and punches you square in the guts with her astonishing performance in this solid revival of the Broadway classic.
The ultimate pushy Mother, as hard as nails and totally unfeeling, yet damaged, fragile and desperately clinging to her offspring through whom she lives the existence that has always been so out of reach for her. Momma Rose is a wonderfully complicated character with an amazing array of tunes to belt her way through by Jule Styne overlaid with those gutsy and at times heart wrenching Sondheim lyrics.
Based on the memoirs of Rose’s daughter, the now infamous Gypsy Rose Lee of the title, the story amounts to the worst kind of mental child abuse that at times leaves you squirming uncomfortably in your seat. Pushing her girls into showbiz whilst kidnapping young boys to play opposite them would of course see her being locked up these days. When favourite and headlining Baby June runs away all hopes are pinned on Louise, the dowdy sister with the lesser talent. As fate steps in the irony is that Louise becomes the star that her Mother always wanted her to be, but does so without any Motherly intervention thus casting Rose adrift and leaving her lost in the wilderness.
Lara Pulver expertly steers Louise through the tangled journey of transition from tom boy child to mesmerising Vaudeville star. Holding the audience in the palm of her hand as she seduces and teases Pulver ravishes and delights. Her insecurities remain evident just below the surface as she makes the break away from the mental clutches of her mother showing the strength and resolve that we are all rooting for her to show.
Just as important but far less convincing is Kevin Whately’s Herbie, the manager and father figure who is ruthlessly recruited by Rose to add some form of normality and security into the chaos. As he is strung along and only ever teased with the prospect of marriage to Rose, Whately strikes a terrifically downtrodden figure as he trails the country after her. He never looks completely comfortable onstage however and only just about walks his way through his sung parts.
The support is consistently good and strong. Particular mention must go to Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe for their hysterical Gotta Get A Gimmick. The seedy underbelly of Vaudeville is in full view at this point, the only real fault of this production is that is rarely seen elsewhere though. The designs by Anthony Ward are functional on the constrictive Chichester stage but are all too glitzy for my liking. This should be the showbiz underworld, dirty, grimy and lived in. Ward gives us too many twinkling lights and shiny surfaces.
That’s small fry though and hardly worth mentioning when there is what will undoubtedly be an award winning performance of epic proportions dominating the stage, for the night belongs to Staunton. She erupts on the stage with seismic blasts of energy that blow you away and moves you tears all at once. With a belter of a voice and an energy that could power downtown Broadway for a generation, Staunton is nothing short of sublime.
Go see and you will witness a performance that will be remembered in theatre history for a very long time to come.