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Sweet Smell of Success – Arcola Theatre, London

Music: Marvin Hamlisch

Lyrics: Craig Carnelia

Book: John Guare

Director: Mehmet Ergen

Reviewer : Jonathan Baz



If the aromas of this country’s recent nasty episodes of cheque-book phone-tapping journalism could be distilled they might be ironically labelled the Sweet Smell of Success. This show from Marvin Hamlisch, he of blessed memory, is a thoroughly unpleasant tale of a morally bankrupt press, with a plot that includes almost flippant nods to McCarthyism, suggested incestuous motives, suicide and murder. There is a love interest, but it merely serves as second fiddle to the devious malfeasance that drives this work.

David Bamber is JJ Hunsecker an influential New York columnist, with an unhealthily protective attitude towards his much younger sister Susan, played by Caroline Keiff. While the immorality of the press has long been a rich seam for writers, Bamber’s character however loathsome is not a patch on the grotesque media baron that was Lambert Le Roux in David Hare’s Pravda. Bamber’s acting is impressive but his singing disappoints and a second act vaudeville number, whose sole purpose seems to be that of providing Hunsecker with a big song and dance number, is an opportunity squandered. As Sidney Falcone, a protege of manipulative journalism, whose character is ruthlessly manipulated by Hunsecker, Adrian der Gregorian is frequently reduced to acting by simply shoulder shrugging.

To the show’s credit, other performances shine. Stuart Matthew Price is masterful as Dallas, the young pianist in love with Susan. It is a delight to see this actor in a large “almost lead” rôle that for once offers his character numerous opportunities to sing solo as his voice is simply divine. Similarly excellent is Celia Graham in the far too minor rôle of cigarette girl Rita. A highlight of the evening is the belting of her character’s one and solo number, Rita’s Tune. Wonderfully mopping up a handful of the minor scene-setting rôles is Russell Morton, a young man of striking presence and potential. Hamlisch’s melodies are bold and jazzy and Bob Broad’s direction of his pitch perfect 7-piece band is a beautiful evocation of time and place.

Nathan M Wright’s choreography of the ensemble numbers lacked polish on press night. It was sometimes clumsy, and while expensive sets may not be expected in this fine off-West End establishment, foot-perfect dance routines are and Wright should urgently drill his cast further. Mehmet Ergen’s direction also denies his actors their full potential. The show’s staging is at times poorly thought out: a crucial beating takes place on a badly lit gantry, not easily visible to a proportion of the audience and a repeated gag of the chorus apparently appearing from an upstage pit, wears thin with repetition.

In Jason Robert Brown’s Parade one song from a journalist, Real Big News, says more about a corrupt press than this show manages in two acts. If the cast and creative team can refine its weaker points, then this production stands a chance of generating a modest whiff of success.

Runs to December 22

Photo:Simon Annan


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