A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Presented by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of SA
Reviewed Saturday 21st May 2011

Venue: Scott Theatre, University of Adelaide, Adelaide
Season: 8pm Wed 25th to Sat 28th May, 2pm Sat 28th May 2011
Duration: 2hrs 20min incl interval
Tickets: adult $40/conc $35
Bookings: 8447 7239 or

This musical comedy is, of course, in the style of Commedia dell’Arte. All of the stock characters are there and the usual antics are brought into play, including the Deus ex Machina at the end. It is text book stuff and drama students should certainly take a peek at it. Students of the form will recognise Pantalone in Lycus, Il Capitano in Miles Gloriosus, Brighella in Pseudolus, and so on.

The original Commedia dell’Arte (the name is abbreviated from Commedia dell’Arte all’improviso, comedy through the art of improvisation) had a basic story, the scenario, usually involving adultery, love, mistaken identity or jealousy, but much of the performance was improvised, it was fast and frenetic and, of course, physical comedy played a major part. Pulcinella, for example, later became transformed into Mr. Punch, who is the central character in the very physical, even violent Punch and Judy shows. Arlecchino later became the clown, Harlequin, once popular in the circus. Commedia dell’Arte gave us slapstick (the original slapstick, or batacchio, was, in fact, a stick or club with two hinged slats that made a loud noise when one actor struck another, although little force was used and it did not hurt), the pratfall (prat is a 16th century term for buttocks), and more.

Music, song and dance were also a major part of a Commedia production and, in this production, such older forms as the madrigal are replaced by the modern music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, written at an early stage in his career and featuring jazz influences. It was, in fact, his first show writing both lyrics and music.

Given the long comic tradition behind this work, and the lively music of Sondheim, this production should be packed with physical action, attention grabbing and a laugh a minute. Perhaps it was a reaction to the small and not particularly responsive matinee audience, but it was not what should have been. It lacked pace and was rather static, apart from two notable exceptions. The physical comedy and excitement mostly came from the Proteans: Chris Anderson, Tom Bubner, Beau-Daniel Loumeau and Patrick Witcombe, particularly when they go right over the top as the eunuchs, and also from the Courtesans: Tintinabula (Nicole Hall), Panacea (Tiffany Welden-Iley), The Geminae (Megan Donald and Liana Nagy), Vibrata (Meagan Kozlowski), and Gymnasia (Sarah Nagy).

A major plus for this production was the orchestra, under Musical Director, James Clark. They were well-rehearsed and disciplined, giving a reliable, solid foundation for the singers. His work with the chorus and soloists, too, was superb, bringing out terrific performances from everybody. There is no faulting the marvellously high quality musical side of this production.

The piece is based around the residents of three adjacent houses, on a set designed by Chris Anderson and lit by Laraine Wheeler. On one side of the stage is that owned by the aged Erronius, who has been absent for many years seeking his children who were stolen by pirates. On the other side of the stage is that of Marcus Lycus, who sells courtesans. Centre stage is the house of Senex, who lives there with his wife, Domina, his son, Hero, his chief slave, Hysterium, and Hero’s slave, Pseudolus.

Pseudolus wants his freedom, and he sees his chance when Hero falls in love with a girl that he sees in a window of the house of Lycus. It transpires that she is a virgin named Philia and she is contracted to be sold to Captain Miles Gloriosus. Pseudolus agrees to get the girl for Hero, in exchange for his freedom, and promptly sets in motion a string of ludicrously complex schemes in order to achieve his ends.

Nicholas Bishop does a fine job as the central character, the wily Pseudolus, singing up a storm and looking the part, and deviously manipulating all those who come within range of his plots, although a touch more of Arthur Daley’s shiftiness in his characterisation would not go astray. Greg Beer, as the head slave, and unwilling co-conspirator to Pseudolus, comes alive in his songs but does not live up to his character’s name, Hysterium, the rest of the time. He should become hysterical at the drop of a hat, and Pseudolus drops plenty of those metaphorical pieces of headgear.

Traditionally, the lovers are not exactly the brightest sparks in town and Philia is the archetypal ‘dumb blonde’, as we discover when she sings I’m Lovely, telling us that that is all that she has to offer. She confirms her dimness when she sings of how she will take her revenge on Miles Gloriosus after he collects her, in That’ll Show Him. Hero has a similar IQ and moons about hopelessly, so they are a well matched pair. Natalie Tate and James Nicholson sing charmingly and produce plenty of laughs as the terminally naive duo.

John Greene gives us an appropriately lecherous old man in the role of Senex, but makes us aware that, although the spirit is willing, he is concerned that the flesh might well prove weak, asking Hysterium to brew him a potion. There are plenty of giggles as he chases Philia, who mistakes him for the Captain. Anne Doherty is imposing as his overbearing wife, Domina, getting plenty of laughs as she barges about in her bombastic way. The two have some sparkling dialogue between them, particularly with his whispered asides.

David Rapkin’s Lycus is nicely oily and fiscally focussed and Renfrey Ansell looks completely exhausted and befuddled as his Erronius staggers seven times around the seven hills of Rome.

Kerry Hauber does a good job of choreographing people who are mostly, clearly, not dancers, resulting more in stylised movement, and Barry Hill’s influence as the director can be seen in some of his trademark touches and what, if the cast had followed through, would have been hilarious moments. Bronwen Major has provided some very bright and colourful costumes that make everybody look good. If the cast can lift the pace, inject some energy and tighten it all up there is a lot of potential here.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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