Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola Theatre
Directed by Arcola Theatre’s founder Mehmet Ergen, Sweet Smell of Success has shape-shifted several times to reach its current form. It was originally published in 1950 as a novella entitled Tell Me About Tomorrow, before being reworked into a screenplay for the movie Sweet Smell of Success, released in 1957. It suffered a lukewarm reception and relative obscurity, but ripened beautifully over time until, in 2002, the movie was reworked into a musical by composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, and writer John Guare. Arcola’s production is the musical’s British premiere, and bwoy, have they done it well.
As readers of Ernest Lehmann’s original novella would have been well aware, gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker was the fictional mirror to real-life columnist Walter Winchell. Sweet Smell of Success perfectly captures the atmosphere of a world intoxicated with this new medium: dirt (“It’s an animal need,” sing the chorus, fervently flicking through newspapers). Set against this backdrop of greed and gossip is the story of Sidney Falcone, a down-on-his-luck agent who manages to win Hunsecker’s favour. Hunsecker’s little sister Susan and her musician lover are soon swept into an increasingly ruthless struggle between the two men and their warring motives, as themes of power, influence and ownership collide with true love and class dynamics.
As anyone who’s visited Arcola’s Studio 1 will attest, the space isn’t exactly generous. It’s certainly not the kind of place into which you’d light-heartedly drop a full two-act musical with live musicians. But if anything, the limited space seems to work to the ensemble’s advantage: think lightning set changes, inspired use of levels, and none of that sense of remoteness that comes with sitting at the back in a large theatre. And, as almost all the seating is raised above stage level, you get a birds-eye view of everything. Everything, that is, except the seven musicians, who are crowded with their instruments on to a platform not much larger than a queen-sized bed. Their precise, swaggering performance wins our utmost respect within minutes.
Thankfully Ergen steers clear of any attempts at contemporary recontextualisation, and the production is located firmly in the past. The hair, costumes and telephones are period-perfect, the dances are swinging, and the heavy sexism of the time is starkly apparent. David Bamber and Adrian der Gregorian shine in their villainous but (almost) all-too-human roles, as do Caroline Keiff and Stuart Matthew Price as troubled lovebirds. The chorus, as narrators, dancers, singers, and Sidney’s devilish conscience, are excellent. The writing itself is sharp and snappy, seamlessly swinging from speech to song with none of the awkward transitions usually endemic to musicals. It holds our attention from moment to moment, the dramatic tension expertly managed across the breadth of the performance. The band prowls, snaps and blares with the rambunctiousness of an elephant and the softness of a string quartet. The programmes even include notes on the politics, culture and society of 1950s New York to contextualise the drama for audience members. Quite simply, Sweet Smell of Success is, well, exactly that.
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