Tuesday, 11 December 2018

REVIEW: The Producers - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

For their Christmas show this year, The Royal Exchange have gone with something a little bit different, staying away from the usual Christmas Musicals or pantomimes, and instead taken a risk, and come out on top! Their choice, this extremely lively and highly satirical parody of Broadway Theatrical Producers during what could be described as the Golden Age of Broadway in the 50s and 60s.

First of all came a film in 1968, which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, then, years later, the stage Musical, and then in 2005, another film version from the Musical this time starring Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane an Uma Thurman. It is now 2018 and interest in and affection for this absolute genius piece of writing by Mel Brooks has certainly not diminished.

Mel Brooks was a man who was certainly not afraid to put himself and his work on the front line; with his masterly mixture of parody, satire and comedy genius, alongside his unabashed ability at self-mockery have made his work so durable and fresh.

The story, as if you don't know the storyline!, follows a down-on-his-luck and slightly corrupt producer Max Bialystock, reduced now to seducing little old rich ladies in order to finance his projects. Enter Leo Bloom, accountant, and after finding a large discrepancy in Bialystock's books, makes an off-the-cuff remark that one could actually make more money by producing a guaranteed flop, than by trying for a success. Bialystock ropes Bloom in - it doesn't take much convincing since he always wanted to be a Broadway producer anyway! - And the two set about finding the biggest sure-fire flop through a pile of scripts. They find it - a Musical Romp glorifying and adulating Adolf Hitler entitled 'Springtime For Hitler'. It is the most offensive play ever; how could it possibly not be a flop. After convincing the author of the play - a neo-Nazi from Bavaria living in New York - they find the outrageous and overtly gay director Roger De Bris and a cast of no-hopers - including casting the writer himself as Hitler - and the two sit back and wait for the curtain to fall for the first and last time before coining in their ill-gotten gains and retiring in Rio. Of course the audience love the show - they see it as satire and parody - (the irony of this!) - And so Bialystock and Bloom are sent to prison. However, whilst in prison they set up a similar scam with the guards and prisoners and start work on a new Musical before being released.

Rez Shaw's direction of this highly irreverent comedy masterpiece is just about as good as anyone could get working with the restrictions and challenges of the Royal Exchange's small circular space.
Never does he let the cast descend into bland mono-dimensional caricature, never is he too heavy-handed with possibly offensive material... keeping everything as Kenny Everett would undoubtedly have said, 'always in the best ever possible taste!' In fine art terms, the balance between large sweeping brush strokes and stippling was excellent. 

Julius D'Silva (Max Bialystock) and Stuart Neal (Leo Bloom) worked superbly together. Quite rightly their characters acknowledged the original creations and were very true to Mel Brooks' concept, but they also found their own way through these difficult roles with skill, and their onstage chemistry was lovely. The show was outrageous where it should have been [ Charles Brunton's dress-wearing theatre impresario Roger De Bris and his personal secretary Carmen Ghia (Hammed Animashaun) and their entourage], irreverent where it should have been [Dale Meeks' pseudo-Bavarian pro-Hitler, Franz Liebkind] and extravagantly tongue-in-cheek where it should have been [The entire 'Springtime For Hitler' sequence]. But the show was also very sensitive too, with well-placed pathos. The court scene towards the end of the Musical was a classic example of this.

Ben Stones' minimalist but surprising design and fabulous costumes worked excellently, and combined with Alistair David's superb choreography, and a surprisingly large (9-piece) band, taking up a segment of the first gallery and sounding lush, this was a fast-paced, hysterical, intelligently produced piece of theatrical magic. A fantastic cast, a fantastic show, and one which I would easily go and see again tomorrow if I wasn't already out reviewing elsewhere!

The show runs at The Royal Exchange until 26 January.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 10/12/18

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