entertainment

Review | 'Gypsy' at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, is a 'Christmas gem'

The production offers something warmingly familiar and delightfully different.

2019-12-06

Words: Stephen M Hornby

You can see why people wanted to make to tell this story. 

It has exquisitely compelling elements: an overbearing mother, who may have murdered more than once, pushing two daughters to be stars at any price, regardless of whether they possess any actual talent, and the unexpected blossoming of one of them into the most famous, loved and scandalous women of mid-century America. 

It all screams musical like nothing else.

Ria Jones (Rose)

Gypsy is based loosely on the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, which in turn is based very loosely on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee. 

Essentially, there are two sisters, June designated child star, and Louise designated chorus, dominated by Rose, a mother who is determined that the family will sing and dance its way out of the Great Depression.

June, does have some talent, and before long is offered another path away from her mother’s influence. 

 Melissa Lowe (June)

Without June’s shadow cast over her, Louise can become who she really is, and who she really is not what anyone expected.

Ria Jones punches out Rose with an optimism and self-belief that the characters circumstances rarely justify.  Jones makes her tenacious, steely strong, and mildly abusive, a flawed person who we can still love. 

Her final number, 'Rose’s Song' set the theatre alight and is beautifully performed as a brilliant, brutal affirmation of a life that might have been. 

Melissa James (Louise), Ria Jones (Rose)

Melissa James does a fantastic job at transforming the shy, self-deprecating Louise into an international star.  Melissa Lowe is equally dazzling as June and both characters younger versions Maddison Arnold and Marley Quinlan-Gardner are strikingly talented.

June’s absence from the second half and the lack of any reconciliation with Louise or Rose is problematic, but director Jo Davies adds a moment into Louise’s transformation as a nod to this.

The strip teasing gladiator ballet stars Suzie Chard as Mazeppa and Kate O’Donell as Electra are sensational, and milk ever moment of saucy humour out of the script. 

 Kate O'Donnell (Electra)

Louis Grant is also exceptional as Tulsa and the ensemble are all point perfect as is Leo Munby’s musical direction.

A big stage musical in the round is a massive challenge.  Francis O’Connor addresses some of the limitations of the space with a revolving, illuminating proscenium arch that partly solves the problem, but the production still feels a bit adrift in time and place.

Davies has directed the show with a focus on the intergenerational relationships between the women and this has paid off.  The final confrontation between Louise and Rose is electrifying.

Melissa James (Louise)

Gypsy is a Christmas gem. This production finds a fresh and charming way into the material and offers something warmingly familiar and delightfully different.

Rating: 4*

Gypsy will run at The Royal Exchange until 1 February 2020. Grab your tickets here.

Images by Johan Persson