Often a show can feel like a bit of a con – you think you're in for a real treat, but it slowly dawns on you that perhaps the idea of it all wasn't as good as it seemed in the first place, or perhaps the actors aren't the best, or maybe that seat that you thought was a real bargain turns out to have a view of the stage not so much expansive but rather like peeping through a keyhole. And just like one's defences rise up at the arrival of an email from a Nigerian prince (who has yet to get back to me, mind you), so were this critic's doubts alarmed at the opening prospects of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, now playing at the Theatre Royal.
Lawrence Jameson (Tony Sheldon), Jolene Oakes (Katrina Retallick), and Freddy Benson (Matt Hetherington). Photo by Kurt Sneddon.
It had pedigree, though, with signs outside emblazoned with its 11 nominations for Tony Awards (then again, apart from the rare premieres that Sydney gets, are any musicals put on that don't have Tony nominations?). It had some well known names: Tony Sheldon, Matt Hetherington, John Wood, and Amy Lehpamer, among others. But what it didn't seem to have was that level of quality that, unless reached, taints a large production such as this with a unshakeable aura of it feeling a tad 'cheap'. There were two main reasons for this: first, the set wasn't the highest quality ever to grace a musical stage, the Riviera coastline backdrop and potted palm trees on wheels not quite lush and detailed enough to let one's disbelief fall away; and second, the choreography, which involved the wheeling around of said potted plants (amongst other movements not connected to them) was lacklustre and, dare I say it, would be cheesy even to a Frenchman. The jokes in the opening scenes didn't quite stick, too, and one had the sinking sensation that the night was going to be one in which none of its protractions would pass unmarked; the kind of night where no seat in the world could make a posterior feel comfortable.
But then it picked up. Dramatically. Suddenly the lyrics were words to be savoured, and the next line clung to; suddenly the gags and the slapstick all fell into place; suddenly everything was rolling in the right direction. Yes, the set was still a little lacking – although the dancing featured no more trundling flora – but what a difference a good book and a snappy song made! The ridiculousness of it all was infectious, with smatterings of fourth-wall breaks (an 'usher' from the Theatre Royal storming onto stage with her flashlight and singing about how she had been seduced by Tony Sheldon's character, for example), and this critic found himself laughing quite uproariously. (A strange feeling, indeed, for us critics are usually dour folk who view smiling as something untoward.)
For those of you who don't know the story, it follows a well-established conman, Lawrence Jameson (Tony Sheldon), who, together with the chief of police Andre Thibault (John Wood), has been fleecing the ladies of Beaumont-sur-Mer for quite some time. Then along comes Freddy Benson (Matt Hetherington), a crass American who cons in the shallow end of the pool, and the two meet. Benson wants to learn from Jameson; Jameson isn't so sure; eventually they come to an impasse only solvable by a bet – whoever cons a certain girl (Christine Colgate, played by Amy Lehpamer) will get to stay, the other must leave and con somewhere else. Based on the movie starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine (and while no one could accuse Tony Sheldon of looking like Caine, Hetherington has remarkable similarities on occasion throughout the night), the musical, at least from my memory of the movie, embellishes on the plot a little (adding a side story involving Thibault and Muriel Eubanks (Anne Wood) that gives rise to one of the best scenes of the night), as well as adding, obviously, quite a few dance numbers, notably including a ho-down of sorts involving rich Oklahoman mark Jolene Oakes (Katrina Retallick).
Sheldon is on form, Hetherington superb, and while John Wood's French accent isn't quite the best, he gets away with it. (One could almost say he cons us himself.) The women, too, are excellently cast, with Anne Wood pitch-perfect as a woman rediscovering her prime, and Lehpamer and Retallick simply burst with enthusiasm and gusto. It isn't the most lavish production that has ever been seen, one must say, but what it lacks in money, it more than makes up for in charm. Just like a conman, too, perhaps. Not groundbreaking, but anyone looking for an entertaining musical should not miss it.