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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

BBC and YouTube 2015   Autumn 2023

Theatregoers with long memories might first have noticed Imelda Staunton as a member of the National Theatre's rep company in the 1980s, while others spotted her among every other actor in Britain in the Harry Potter films and as the Queen in television's The Crown.

As strong in musicals as in dramas, in the West End in 2011 she was the best Mrs. Lovett ever (and that includes Angela Lansbury) in Sweeney Todd and in 2017 a heartbreaking Sally in Follies.

And in 2015 she was the second-best-ever (c'mon guys, nobody could top Ethel Merman) Mama Rose in this revival of Gypsy, recorded for the BBC and here available on YouTube.

Quick reminder: Gypsy Rose Lee was an American burlesque performer of the 1930s and 1940s whose act was more tease than strip and who gained a 'respectable' reputation as a comedienne, author and wit.

In adapting her memoirs to the stage, Arthur Laurents spotted that the much more interesting character in her life was her gorgon of a stage mother, and the 1959 musical Gypsy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) was a vehicle for superstar Ethel Merman as Mama.

Merman (and yes, I am an old man and I did see her) played Mama Rose as a force of nature, an irresistible powerhouse of ambition and determination who just drove her way through any obstacles and setbacks, and every actress who has followed her attempted the same characterisation, with varying degrees of success.

But Imelda Staunton, a better actress than most of them, found colours and depths in Rose that nobody else Merman included had, and the result is a much darker, more dramatic and more human story.

Staunton's Rose is as determined as any of them, but where Merman and the others just ran roughshod over everyone in morale-boosting songs like Small World and You'll Never Get Away From Me, Staunton's Rose has to manipulate, wheedle and seduce in short, to work hard at dominating them.

Seeing the effort lets us see the need, and Staunton shows us much earlier than anyone else that Rose isn't just driving the others but being driven by an inner demon.

Nowhere is this clearer or more chilling than in that anthem of optimism Everything's Coming Up Roses, which Staunton sings to herself more than those around her, showing us a desperation very close to madness.

Instead of ending Act One on a note of hope, this revival sends us into the interval a little frightened by what we've just glimpsed and uncertain where this woman's obsessiveness is going to take us.

Where it's going to take us, of course, is to one of the greatest climaxes in the history of the Broadway musical, Rose's Turn.

Ethel Merman played it and rightly created Broadway legend every night as a defiant 'I'm still here' warning to the fates.

But listen to the original cast recording and you'll spot that the one place in the whole show where her performance doesn't convince is when Rose falters and can't quite say the words. Merman's Rose was just too powerful to crack even a little.

Staunton makes that moment the key to the whole song, as Rose looks failure in the face and becomes both pathetic and heroic in the same moment.

I hasten to say that all the show's upbeat numbers are there, all the jokes work, and the show still entertains as a big, brassy colourful Broadway musical should. There's just more psychological depth and emotional meat to it than ever before.

All that was apparent onstage in 2015, as our review HERE showed. This polished and professional video version enhances things through well-chosen close-ups, letting us see clearly what might not have been quite so apparent from the back rows of the balcony.

The video also does great favours for Lara Pulver as the young Gypsy. Since the plot involves Rose neglecting her in favour of her sister June (later to become the film actress June Havoc), Arthur Laurents' book relegates Pulver's character to the background for most of the evening.

But the camera keeps noticing her and her reactions to what's going on, making us aware of her and her emotional journey much earlier than we might onstage.

I've seen four or five productions of Gypsy, and to have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences is more than I could have asked for. Don't miss this one.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Gypsy (BBC 2015)  2023