Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Bristol Hippodrome

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. Michael Praed (Lawrence), Carley Stenson (Christine) and Noel Sullivan (Freddy). Photo by Phil Tragen

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is based on the film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, though its roots can be traced all the way back to Bedtime Story, with David Niven and Marlon Brando. It’s a tale set in an idealized version of the French Riviera, where two con artists form an uneasy alliance. One, Lawrence Jameson, is debonair and cultured, but his younger rival, Freddy Benson, is a brash vulgarian.

The stylish Michael Praed is wonderfully languid and vain as Jameson, masquerading as a prince from some Ruritanian backwater as he smoothly seduces wealthy ladies into handing over their jewellery. In comic contrast, Noel Sullivan is outrageously uncivilised as Benson, a Jack-the-lad who makes up for his lack of sophistication with formidable cunning. Much of the fun in this hugely entertaining show comes from the disguises they adopt as they try to dupe their chosen victims and outwit each other at the same time. They set about swindling three women, the first being Muriel Eubanks. Geraldine Fitzgerald brings a touching vulnerability to this role, portraying a much travelled lady who seems only too keen to fall for Jameson’s ‘royal’ charms. Fitzgerald’s subtle performance allows Muriel to keep her dignity, if not her diamond tiara. Her poignant song, ‘What was a woman to do?’ bring a moment of quiet wistfulness amid all the comic mayhem. Careless of her wealth, Muriel is looking for love and finds it in an unexpected quarter.

The second victim is Jolene Oakes, a brassy blonde oil millionairess from cowboy country, complete with buckskin jacket and boots. Phoebe Coupe plays Jolene as a manic version of Dolly Parton. Her comic paean to her home state is a song called ‘Oklahoma?’ which she delivers with an almost frightening level of energy. Jolene is so loud and fast-talking that before he knows it Jameson finds himself engaged to be married. The funniest scene in the first half involves his scheme to dissuade Jolene from marriage by introducing her to his intellectually challenged brother ‘Ruprecht’, a grotesque product of royal in-breeding played with lascivious relish by Benson. Third of the dupes is Christine Colgate, an all-American girl who seems to be an innocent abroad, but who has hidden depths. Hollyoaks regular Carley Stenson is simply sensational as Christine, revealing a beautiful singing voice and a very considerable talent for comedy. Finally, Gary Wilmot is perfectly cast as local police chief Andre Thibault, happy to turn a blind eye to all this mischief. Wilmot’s French accent is a thing of beauty, and his comic timing is spot-on, too.

The second half has even more pace and energy than the first, and has one scene that is a comic masterpiece, where Freddy has conned Christine into believing he is a traumatized soldier who is paralysed from the waist down. Lawrence is determined to expose this deception, so he pretends to be an Austrian psychiatrist who knows how to make Freddy walk again. His treatment involves repeatedly whacking Freddy’s ‘numb’ legs with a cane. Noel Sullivan’s facial expressions as Freddy desperately attempts to hide his pain are side-splittingly funny.

The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek, whose Broadway credits include The Full Monty and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He has a gift for parody, perhaps best heard in the supercharged ballad Love Is My Legs, sung with over-emotional gusto by Freddy and Christine. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not a sentimental musical, and writer Jeffrey Lane frequently punctuates moments of tenderness with a risqué one-liner. There are many clever sight gags, too. This is very, very funny show, slickly directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell and blessed with a dazzlingly talented cast. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels sparkles like the Mediterranean under a cloudless sky.    ★★★★★     Mike Whitton    7th October 2015



Photo Phil Tragen