Tuesday 12 September 2023


WHAT: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
WHEN: 8 - 24 September 2023
WHERE: Chapel Off Chapel (The Chapel)
MUSIC & LYRICS BY: Stephen Sondheim
BOOK BY: Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove
DIRECTED BY: Melanie Hillman
SET BY: Sarah Tulloch
COSTUMES BY: Jemima Johnston
LIGHTING BY: Rob Sowinski
PERFORMED BY: Sarah Barlow, Sarah Brown, Gen Campbell, Rina D'Cruz, Charmaine Gorman, Milo Hartill, Jacqui Hoy, Trevor Jones, Kristie Nguy, Mel O'Brien, Alanna Ritchie, Judith Roberts, Luisa Scrofani, Sophie Weiss, Cathy Woodhouse, and Sarahlouise Younger
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Sophie Loughran
SOUND BY: Marcello Lo Ricco
STAGE MANAGED BY: Daikota Gerrett

Charmaine Gorman, Jacqueline Hoy, Milo Hartill and Mel O'Brien - photo by Jodi Hutchinson

Let's be honest. Staging A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum today is a fraught decision - almost as fraught as staging Shakespeare. After having watched it I truly believe the only way you can do it in modern times is exactly the way Watch This have done it. You can see what I mean by heading to Chapel Off Chapel this week.

Written in 1962 by the incredible Stephen Sondheim with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Forum is a classic sex farce which which even predates the word farce! Riffing on the comedy stylings of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, this team play with all the archetypal comedy tropes to create a comedy of errors Shakespeare would envy (particularly as this is exactly the kind of thing he did too). There has been an attempt to list the specific Plautus plays encompassing the plot of Forum but why bother? As all wise theatre makers know, once you have a formula you put it on rinse and repeat and voila! you have a career, repertoire, and a reputation. If you are lucky enough to be a man it can sustain you for centuries.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a tale of men seeing sexy women and striving to own them or bed them, women as sex slaves, and house slaves doing anything to buy their freedom. All the men are rich, brave, or strong, and the few women included are slaves or wives. This should not work on a stage in 2023 but Melanie Hillman (director) has dipped into the feminist and non-binary gender zeitgeists and found a way to tell this story, but also reveal and expose this story for everything it is and everything it isn't.

Every character in this production of Forum is played by a woman. And not just any women. The women in this cast defy the male gaze. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.  Mel O'Brien is a knockout as the sexy and dumb Philia despite spilling out of her blue gown in all the right places. Luisa Scrofani is a giant on stage despite her diminutive size as she plays the bombastic Miles Gloriosus. Sarahlouise Younger brings gravitas and sophistication to the scurrilous brothel owner Marcus Lycus.

The genius of Hillman's production is that she hasn't changed a word of the script. There is no concession given to the gender of the actors in word or deed. This is what packs the punch and masculine ribaldry and lasciviousness runs amok along these Ancient Roman streets. The cast play the story true and that is the most dangerous thing they can do. In the process they do their own lampoon on this old lampoon and also the modern theatre strictures for women who dare to tread the boards of the great theatres of the world.

As a musical, this production of A Funny Thing Happened To The Way To The Forum is fine. The acting, directing and choreography (Sophie Loughran) do the job they need to do. Luckily all the women are very fine vocalists, the band is uptempo, and Sarah Tulloch's set is visually outstanding even though it doesn't really give the actors much of a dynamic playing space. Kristie Nguy as the protean (an ancient supernumerary) is absolutely scene-stealing in her incredible acting, singing and dancing.

If you really want to go and see such old and out-dated theatrical offerings such as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum then this is the one to see. At least this one says something new and current rather than engraving old patriarchal tropes even deeper into our psyche. Oh, and yes, it is very funny. Literally a laugh a minute.

3.5 Stars

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