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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Savoy Theatre


  Imelda Staunton/ Ph: Johan Persson

There’s greatness and then there’s Imelda Staunton’s performance as Rose in Gypsy, which surely exists a league apart. Handpicked to play the part by the show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, whose work has to date won the mighty but diminutive Staunton two Olivier Awards (and a third is all but assured for Gypsy next spring), an actress who has long said she doesn’t like musicals per se but does like musicals in which one can act, here gives an acting performance that redefines a canonical part in front of your eyes.
That she also sings it damn well is the icing on an absurdly rich cake – Staunton, ever the perfectionist, having polished her vocals since Jonathan Kent’s production first opened in Chichester last fall. (This staging has taken the same Chichester-to-West End route that resulted in Kent’s Staunton/Michael Ball-led revival of Sweeney Todd hitting the West End in 2012.) But whereas that staging presented a double-act in which the arguable revelation was Ball wiping his apple-cheeked boy-man image away for good in favor of a performance that seemed to come from a different place altogether, Gypsy finds Staunton front and center and firing on all cylinders. And by the time she lets rip near the end with Rose’s defining line, as regards her own failed dreams, “If I could’ve been, I would’ve been,” one seems to have peered headlong into the bruised heart of a determined yet self-deluded woman, a so-called “pioneer woman without a frontier” who recognizes no boundaries beyond that defining push toward the immortal amid circumstances that render this powerhouse very mortal – which is to say, fallible – indeed.
Staunton finds every color in the spectrum. She’s as funny and flirtatious as she needs to be to snare Herbie (Peter Davison was off the night I saw the West End transfer, so I can’t comment on his performance) but also a bull in the china box of showbiz where she is keen that at least one of her daughters leave her mark even if Rose knows she that legacy won’t ever belong to her. Marked by defection and betrayal at every turn – and Staunton gathers up Rose’s cumulative defeats like a woman keeping tabs on life’s cruel lances – she seizes “Rose’s Turn” like the last desperate and tearful hurrah that it is. It’s no surprise following that number that Staunton seems to have shrunk in stature as she and Lara Pulver’s superb Louise (a dead ringer in some ways for this role’s last Broadway occupant, Laura Benanti) make their final exit: ambiguously staged by Kent so as to forestall the conciliatory ending that some productions have preferred.
And during that 11 o’clock number, Staunton the second time I saw the production paused dangerously, thrillingly long following its internal breakdown, stretching stage silence to breaking point and beyond to a degree that I have scarcely seen before in the theater. That is a savvy performance choice. In practical terms, it gives the actress time to redouble her vocals for the final outpouring in song that is yet to come. But the attenuated pause also makes one feel the fragility of a battle-axe who just might be about to break.
Working on a set that may seem too cramped to some but does at least focus its bravura star (Anthony Ward previously designed the Bernadette Peters/Sam Mendes Gypsy, so knows the piece inside-out), Kent brings a classicist’s eye for detail to a show that in lesser hands could simply be one large vocal wail or wink. Dan Burton is the best Tulsa I have ever seen – a glimpse of virility in a show that suggests that Rose’s emasculating tendencies may be the prevailing reason why the soft-hearted Herbie decides to step out of her life. And the various Junes – whether in their childhood or adult iterations – gracefully chart precocity giving way to the self-preservation that leads to June effecting her own exit, so as to cede center-stage to the sibling who went on to become Gypsy Rose Lee.
As to what Staunton will go on to do from here, I can’t begin to imagine beyond lie down with a cold compress or on a beach for many a (deserved) weeks’ rest. There may have been louder or more artfully sung Roses, and I for one will long have a soft spot for the sheer brazen Broadway know-how that Patti LuPone so thrillingly brought to this part in 2008. But has there even been a more complete, more commanding, more ultimately crushing Rose? I doubt it, though I do hope a few more return visits will allow me to answer that question even more emphatically.


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