Eliza Grant 4 March 2010

Cripps Court, Magdalene, 7.45pm Wed 3rd-Sat 6th March 2010


As Mama Rose (Millie Benson) attempts to secure her children a place in the spotlight, the tired and jaded theatre director Mr Weber (James Syrett) exclaims ‘If there is one thing I hate more than kids, it’s kids on stage’. Director Emilie Jouffroy confounded Mr Weber’s rather disparaging remark with her Gypsy: it was full of energy and full of fun.

Gypsy itself has an impressive reputation: Frank Rich, an illustrious ‘New York Times’ critic, for example, describes it as American musical theatre’s answer to King Lear; Clive Barnes CBE writes that ‘Gypsy is one of the best of musicals….’. Taking on Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, then, must have been a daunting prospect for the ‘Magdalene Musical Production Society’ (MMPS).

The band (situated behind the audience) were consistently impressive, compelling us to tap our feet and nod our heads in the small, intimate and not-exactly-ideal-theatrical-space that is ‘Magdalene Cripps’. Their conductor’s shadow, appropriately though perhaps not intentionally, occupied the entire ceiling above our heads giving Gypsy’s meta-theatrical scenes a slightly sinister twist: perhaps ‘all the world a stage’ after all? Furthermore, the ‘shows-within-the-show’ were suitably cringe-worthy, as they were meant to be. One could see why Mama Rose had to fight for her children’s right to be in the theatre. It takes courage for a production to trust its actors to put on a ‘bad show’.

Millie Benson’s zeal as an actress and singer evolved into the desperate energy of Mama Rose, eager to get her ever-maturing children onto the stage. During the finale, Rose sings ‘You either got it or you ain’t’ and Benson certainly did. In many ways, Herbie (Henry Male) complimented Benson, acting as the calming presence to a volatile Mama Rose. However, important lines were sometimes rushed and too quiet. Audibility was not helped by the rather temperamental microphones.

The second act saw Louise (Tommy Crowley) stop playing second fiddle to June (Katie Taffler). Her metamorphosis from timid child to saucy burlesque dancer was startling and the production really pushed all the ‘risque’ buttons that it could. The three strippers, Hannah Wildsmith, Felicity Brook and Adele Julier, were (justifiably) confident. This was, I think, essential. If there had been embarrassment on their part, the audience would have squirmed in their seats. As it was, we were as located in a ‘House of Burlesque’ as we could possibly ever be in Cambridge.

Jake Arnott, Ed Wagstaff, Matt Lim and Sam Ardin were the poor, unpaid dancers and singers who accompanied June whilst she remained under Mama Rose’s care. They sang out well and Arnott was a confident and supple Tulsa, who eventually elopes with June to pursue a rather more distinguished career than endless repetitions of ‘Let Me Entertain You’.

Repetition and circularity are important to Gypsy. In act one, scene one, Mama Rose cries ‘Sing out, Louise!’. When Rose forces her daughter to strut her stuff as a burlesque dancer near the end of the play, Rose reminds Louise to ‘sing out’ once more. In this way, the audience realises that whilst all Rose’s hard work has led mother and daughter to exactly where they began, it has also gradually degraded and debased Mama Rose’s once innocent aspirations.

The cast, crew and band were comprised mainly of ‘Magdalenites’ which last year’s MMPS production The Boyfriend was not. Audience and cast were familiar to one another so that within the meta-theatrical play, there were further ‘in jokes’ to be had. It was a distinctly collegiate performance, where everyone was willing to be entertaining or entertained. Indeed, ‘Let Me Entertain You!’ was a mantra which the cast embraced.

Eliza Grant