A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Philip Quast and Desmond Barrit have both been confirmed as performing in Stephen Sondheim's 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.' Directed by Edward Hall at the National in London from previews from 28 June 2004 to 2nd November 2004

Please note we would like to thank the National Theatre for providing us with these details and with allowing us to use the rehearsal & production pictures, which were superbly taken by photographer Catherine Ashmore. We are grateful to her for giving the National permission to allow us to us them. Please note they are protected by copyright. (Please note they have been tweeked a bit by us for the website).

Check out details on the National's Theatre's website.

Check out more production photographs on the National's Theatre's website

Click Here to read the reviews. We would like to thank Ricia, Mel, Nigel and Paul for taking the time to provide us with the reviews.

Click here to view exclusive backstage pictures of Philip & some of the Cast. We like to offer our thanks and appreciation to Philip and the cast for allowing the pictures to be taken for the website.

The plot concerns a young hero, named Hero, who has fallen in love with a courtesan from next door. He promises freedom to his slave, Pseudolus, in exchange for the girl. Out of the ordinary in that the songs' function was not to advance plot or illuminate character, but rather to give the audience a vaudevillian break from the breakneck pace of the farcical plot. Includes the songs "Comedy Tonight," and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."

Production details:Logo

Directed by Edward Hall
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Musical supervisor & director: Martin Lowe
Set Designer: Julian Crouch
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Costumes: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis


Synopsis taken from Original Broadway production:

Act One:

Philip and Desmond in Rehearsal

A spring evening in Ancient Rome, circa 200 years before the Christian era, and, as is his wont, the thespian Prologus bids us welcome to his temple - wherein are worshipped the gods of tragedy and comedy. Alas, tragedy will have to wait, for it is Comedy Tonight. "Raise the curtain!" he cries, and promptly it falls to the floor, revealing the set on which tonight's entertainment will be played - the adjoining houses of Erronius, Senex and Lycus. But Prologus seems more taken by the character of Senex's son's slave Pseudolus: "a role of enormous variety and nuance, and played by an actor of such . . ." - in other words, his own part.

As the play begins, Senex and Domina are off to the country, leaving their slave Hysterium in charge of the moral welfare of their son, Hero. But Hero is advanced for his years and feeling strange. The reason? "Love, I Hear," he confides to the audience: what else makes you sigh, and hum a lot, too? The object of his affection is a courtesan at the house of Lycus, but, sadly, Hero has no convertible assets apart from his slippery slave. Maybe, figures Pseudolus, if he could engineer the young lovebirds' union, Hero would let him go Free. Free! A free man, free to write free verse, he muses.

Pseudolus asks the procurer if they can see his stock. The charms of The House of Marcus Lycus are laid before slave and master, but Hero's heart's desire is, it seems, out of bounds. Philia is a virgin from Crete, pre-sold to the legendary warmonger Captain Miles Gloriosus, who has paid extra for virginity. Such a pity, tuts Pseudolus, about the highly contagious plague currently raging in Crete. Sportingly, he agrees to take her off Lycus' hands and thereby prevent her infecting the rest of the merchandise. So Philia and Hero meet at last. She cannot sew, cook, read or write; she has but one talent - being Lovely - but she's happy being lovely because it is a gift that she can give to Hero - if only she could remember his name. Already, though, Pseudolus is making plans: there's a boat anchored in the Tiber just made for two - what a Pretty Little Picture. But Philia says she has to wait for her new owner, the captain, and Pseudolus realises he will have to trick her onto the boat with a sleeping potion. Unfortunately, the recipe requires one ingredient he doesn't have: mare's sweat.

In the slave's absence, Senex returns and is greeted with an ecstatic gasp of "Take me", Philia having confused the head of the household with her captain. In the nick of time, Pseudolus arrives ("Would you believe it? There was a mare sweating not two streets from here') and explains that Philia is the new maid. What a brilliant notion, Senex enthuses, Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. With Philia's new employer eager to conduct an exhaustive job "interview", Pseudolus takes drastic action, emptying his cup of mare's sweat on Senex's toga and forcing the old man to postpone his liaison for a bath. Events are now spinning out of control: Senex is performing his toilet in the house of the wandering Erronius and Pseudolus details Hysterium to detain him within, but then Erronius himself returns and has to be tricked into walking round the seven hills of Rome seven times to banish the evil spirits from his house. "I'm Calm," the put-upon Hysterium tries to convince himself. Senex and Hero, by this stage, are both beginning to notice the way the other is looking at Philia. A beauty like that falling for a callow youth? A beauty like that falling for a gouty, gassy asthmatic? Impossible. But the rightful owner has arrived: Bring Me My Bride," roars Miles Gloriosus. Pseudolus is condemned to death by Miles, but begs to be allowed a word, just one word. Intermission.

Act Two

By now, even Pseudolus is having difficulty following the plot: Miles is being entertained in Senex's house (which he thinks is Lycus'), Senex is waiting in Erronius' house for Philia, Philia is refusing to drink Pseudolus' potion and Domina has returned in pursuit of 'That Dirty Old Man of Mine", convinced he's up to no good. Still under the impression that Senex is Miles, Philia reassures Hero that, whenever she makes love to her new husband, she'll really be making love to her true Hero - so she'll make love all the more intensely: That'll Show Him. Hero doesn't find this much consolation. Moreover, there is now a rival Philia: Hysterium has been dressed as a golden-tressed courtesan and told to play dead and look Lovely. Miles is distraught: his bride is deceased, but the least he can do is build a pyre for her Funeral. Soon, the stage is filled with Philias, fake and genuine, on the run from the menfolk - until the happy ending arrives: Philia is the long-lost daughter of Erronius and Miles the long-lost son; that makes them brother and sister, leaving Philia free to wed Hero and Pseudolus . free. It has, indeed, been a Comedy Tonight.

Musical Numbers:

Over a number of productions and revival's some number have been cut and added. The following list is songs that have appeared in productions once we have the details as to what songs have been included and which have been cut we will up date this list.

Philip in rehearsal

Act One:

Act Two:


A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Review by Clare Peel, Theatreworld Internet Magazine 22 July 2004

Already pulling in the crowds at the National is Edward Hall's revival of this 1962 hit musical. With both lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, the piece is based on the comedies of Roman Plautus and has all the essential ingredients for a good old romp: a naïve, handsome, young male lead; his wily slave; a blonde, bimbo virgin; the local pimp; a hen-pecked old husband and his battleaxe of a wife; a posse of absolutely gorgeous courtesans; and plenty more besides. It's not what you'd call subtle, but, impressively, it never ever degenerates into silliness or dated sexism - instead, you have witty lyrics, loveable characters and a totally engaging story. In fact, it's hugely refreshing to watch something as upbeat as this.

The farce kicks off when master of the house, hen-pecked Senex (Sam Kelly) and his wife Domina (Isla Blair) leave Rome for a spell in the countryside, trusting their chief slave, Hysterium (Hamish McColl) with charge of their house. Another slave of the household, the crafty Pseudolus (Desmond Barrit), spies his chance to make a bid for freedom and negotiates with his young master, Senex's naïve (but sexually excited) son Hero (Vince Leigh), that he can be freed if he can help smooth Hero's path to true love with neighbouring virgin and Barbie look-alike Philia (hilariously, the only thing that she claims to be good at is being lovely, and there's a whole song dedicated to that fact). But there's a spanner in the works in the shape of Miles Gloriosus (Philip Quast), a man mountain with thunder thighs and a contract from pimp Lycus (David Schneider), stating that Philia is to be Gloriosus' wife.

Barrit takes on the role that won Frankie Howerd acclaim in the 1960s - and he certainly does the old master proud. Right from the opening number, 'Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone, A Comedy tonight', delivered with cheeky nods to the audience and many a double entendre, it's clear that we're in for a wholeheartedly entertaining evening in Pseudolus' safe hands. Kelly is equally naughty but nice as the downtrodden-turned-lecherous old man Senex, and McColl is hilarious as Hysterium. Watch with delight when he is dressed up as a decoy virgin in a flouncy white dress and huge blonde wig, and becomes quite girlish thanks to the new-found attention being lavished upon him. (Not to mention when he has to pretend to be a corpse.) Quast is awesome as the vain beefcake Gloriosus, and, last but certainly not least, is rubber-faced Schneider, who plays his role as brothel owner like a dastardly pantomime villain. And they're all helped along by Julian Crouch's flexible set - his two-dimensional, cardboard cutout Roman houses have revolving doors that help add a sense of urgency to several comic entrances and exits. And there are traps doors in the floor through which anyone misbehaving can be fed to the lions, in the finest Roman style.

Fresh, funny and - quite frankly - fabulous.

This is comic theatre at its' absolute best.

Book now before it sells out.

Would like to thank Graham Powner for allowing us to reproduce this review here and I can highly recommend his site if you want to read a good honest review about a production

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Review by Paul Webb, Thursday July 22 by Lastminute.com

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a Stephen Sondheim musical that, to British audiences anyway, will always be associated with Frankie Howerd.

It's a tribute, then, to Desmond Barrit, to say that, though he bears a facial resemblance to Howerd, he very much makes the part his own.

Edward Hall - more usually associated with Shakespeare and serious plays - shows he has a light but deft touch as a director of musicals. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum isn't the world's greatest musical, nor does it throw any great light on human relationships, nor give us consolation in times of trouble, but it is, however, great fun, in a very Carry On way, with sex something to be smiled at rather than taken too seriously.

In that sense it's very much of its time - the early 1960s - which makes its innocent entertainment all the more enjoyable.

Vince Leigh (interviewed here on lastminute.com a few weeks ago) is suitably good looking and amiable as Hero, Sam Kelly is on good comic form as Senex, a hen-pecked old man, and Isla Blair is very good as the lady in question, the aptly-named Domina.

Philip Quast, last seen singing 'This Nearly Was Mine' on the same Olivier stage, in Trevor Nunn's South Pacific, makes a wonderfully swaggering Miles Gloriosus, and Caroline Sheen is a pretty, ditzy young virgin, Philia.

Also worth mentioning, in a cast that is uniformly good, are The Proteans - a gifted group of actors with strong gymnastic/dance skills, who play a variety of parts, from Eunuchs to Roman legionaries: Darren Carnall, Peter Caulfield, David Lucas, Graham MacDuff, Michael Rouse and Matthew Wolfenden.

Julian Crouch provides a straightforward set that matches the cartoon-ish characters, Kevin Pollard provides the equally bright and cheerful costumes, and the band under Martin Lowe's direction stikes just the right note. The body of the musical provides no memorable numbers , but the opening one, 'Comedy Tonight', is brilliantly effective at getting the audience warmed up and giving them a taste of the manic energyy and good nature of the evening ahead.

The production has already earned great reviews, and if you want a summer pick-me-up (no pun intended, though it suits the show) then this is ideal.

Titter You Not

by Martin Spence, MS London, 19th July

Fasten your togas for quadruple entendre, vanishing brides and beautiful dead virgins. Welcome to a world where babes are tarts or bimbos, blokes are always randy and eunuchs have high voices. A world of filth in all its naked innocence. A world of characters with names like Vibrata; where the only virgin around needs a body double.

Listen to 2,000-year-old-jokes as Desmond Barrit’s Pseudolus, the devious slave, seeks to secure his freedom from the ghost of Frankie Howard, who created the role, Barrit is straighter, acidic, less comfortable creature and he sings like he swallowed a pottery penis that pops up unexpectedly. But as a ringmaster, he’s always in control; never flummoxed by the convoluted plot or Sondheim’s involuted, tongue-twisted lyrics.

Great performances, too, from Sam Kelly’s clapped-mouth, myopic husband, desperate for a bit on the side; from Philip Quast’s hung-like-a-horse general who takes a dozen tarts at a time; from Caroline Sheen as the only virgin in Rome who is happy at being lovely. “A virgin – a lot of good it did her!”

There’s nothing that’s formal, nothing that’s normal. The characters are sex addicts, but there’s magical asexual fee to this comic heaven.

Steaming horseshit, revolving doors, songs you can whistle like Comedy Tonight – what more can anyone ask? Hilarious chaos as Hamish McColl’s hysterically funny Hysterium pretends to female, beautiful and dead? You got it.

Tenner a ticket, too. Queue now.

Comedy Tonight!

Adam Scott salutes the National’s glorious revival, Nine to Five, 19th July 2004

One of the most disappointing theatrical events of all is the half-assed production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This cocktail of the farcical works of Roman dramatists Plautus (who also influenced William Shakespeare, see theA Comedyof Errors, its plot is a direct lift from Plautus) and the golden years of American vaudeville should be crisp, fast, warm and, crucially, very funny.

Edward Hall’s production at the National Theatre’s Olivier (020 7452 3000) is all these thing and more.

Part of the NT’s Travelexflo Season, this glorious comedy - really a parade of old chestnuts done to a turn - with songs is set in ancient Rome. Before Julian Crouch’s cut-outset-a Pollock’s toy theatre rendered through the mad prism of Monty Python - the wily slave Pseudolus (Desmond Barrit) conducts the to-ings and fro-ings of a group of randy Romans whilst simultaneously trying to wangle his way to freedom.

Written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, our tale finds Hero in love with Philia, the virginal courtesan who has been promised to Captain Gloriosus. Hero’s father Senex is mistaken by Philia to be the Captain and much sexual confusion ensues. Yes, it sounds like stale old fare on paper, but in the hands of such as team as has been assembled here at the National it is funny, furiously fast and gloriously daft stuff.

Desmond Barrit is entirely his engaging self in the lead role of Pseudolus - although deliciously, perhaps even inevitably for an English interpretation, little shards and flashes of the great Frankie Howerd (originator of the role on the British stage) shine through from time to time. It’s as if some theatrical archaeologist has been at work, and has exposed (ooh er, missus) an earlier interpretation. But this last is more a projection from the auditorium, a remembrance of a much loved performer -Barrit may have large sandals to fill (Frankie's as well as Zero Mostel’s) but fill them he does, and with some ease.

Wandering down through the auditorium and onto the stage atthetop of the play - to a thunderous reception - his sense of blokey bewilderment pulls us immediately into his orbit and never once do we want to leave. Mucky without being crude (for real filth, you should have seen his Falstaff a few years back at the RSC), he brings the requisite vaudevillian skills to the role as if he has been a comedian all his days (he would, Mr Hytner, if you’re reading, make a superb Archie Rice in The Entertainer.)

Sam Kelly as the randy (what else?) Senex is a dry comic actor and makes much out of his bantering scenes with the audience. Hamish McColl (of the Right Size duo who brought us The Play What! Wrote) is superb as the bug-eyed slave Hysterium who starts but a notch below coronary and builds from there. Caroline Sheen as Philia calls to mind Ben Stiller’s vacuous comic creation Derek Zoolander as she revels in her own beauty. Her oh-so-serious delivery of the number Lovely (refrain: “I’m lovely/Absolutely lovely ) is a comic jewel even amid such a festival of invention.

Edward Hall has each number staged as if it were the finale. The energy that this lends the show, each scene, each number being a build from an already breathtaking climax, has the audience eating out of the hands of the cast, with the whoop and cheer quolient rising fit to lift the roof.

Sondheim’s numbers in general are sprinkled throughout the night providing comic set pieces for great actors to relish rather than to drive the show on. Everybody Ought to Have a Maid is seized upon by Barrit, McColl, Kelly and David Schneider and elicits gales of laughter from the house.

But most famous of all remains the opening number Comedy Tonight, with choreography by Rob Ashford. There is such joy in the detail of this packed opener (Keystone Kops-style chorus, out-of-a-costume-trunk routines, tumbling, dancing girls) it feels as if Hall is unpacking his toy box and showing us everything he has with a palpable glee.

And it is a glee that is nigh on impossible not to reciprocate.


by Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday 18 July 2004

Picture of PHil from Independent.

No wonder the Romans tumbled from their imperial pedestal. They were obviously way too busy back home, getting into preposterous sexual pickles. Inspired by the comedies of Plautus, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is, of course, a merrily ludicrous romp with your leery old patriarch, your naïve youth, and your bombastic Miles Gloriosus all chasing after the one dumb blonde slave-girl while the brothel-next-door is wantonly confused a with a respectable matron's family mansion. It's a mercifully unsentimental musical, with its jovial book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and its snazzy jazz and pastiches of music hall and marching songs by Stephen Sondheim.

However, the real delight is that Edward Hall's revival of this 1962 hit proves surprisingly fresh and charming. It must be said that the show gets off to a slow start. The chorus-line boys are fit acrobats but feeble clowns, and Desmond Barrit, playing the canny slave Pseudolus, looked unhappy on Press Night as he joined the opening number, "Comedy Tonight". Perhaps, while facially resembling Frankie Howerd from the film version, Barrit is just too deadpan behind the eyes. The female courtesans' dirty-dancing routines also go on and on, as do their ever-splayed legs.

However, cavils aside, this production is technically swish and becomes ebulliently playful, encouraged by designer Julian Crouch's cardboard cut-out Rome - a collage of magnified guidebook photos plus revolving doors. Barrit rapidly perks up with his accomplice Hysterium, played by the bug-eyed clown, Hamish McColl (from comedy duo The Right Size). The latter ad libs wittily and is adorable when cross-dressed as a decoy virgin - madly prancing and beaming with joy about being pursued.

Barrit can't stop smiling either during their suggestive duet, "Everybody Should Have A Maid", where they launch into a wonderfully lackadaisical, low-kicking can-can. Other treats include David Schneider as the pimp Lycus, dashing about like a gothic villain crossed with a bucktoothed goat, and PHILIP QUAST IS HAVING A MOCK-OPERATIC BLAST AS MILES GLORIOSUS. Embodying the slave-girl Philia, Caroline Sheen's impression of pea-brained sex-appeal is satirically spot on, singing her own praises with a faintly robotic smile, and Sam Kelly is remarkably endearing.

Naughty and nicely done!!

Theatre: Titter ye lots

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will warm your heart like an old Roman’s loins. Ooh er, missus, says Victoria Segal, Sunday Times 18th July 2004 (5 Star rating)

At first glance, reviving A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum seems like an eccentric selection, the kind of curious decision you might come to if you were using an astrologer or a soothsayer as guide. The National Theatre’s leaders disembowel a few unfortunate chickens in an indecisive moment, and the next thing you know, the 1962 musical by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim is romping across the Olivier stage.

Reviving gladiatorial contests or Christians v lions combat could scarcely be less dated. Pre-feminism, it’s full of birds and dragons; pre-Viagra, it introduces old lechers rigid with nothing but performance anxiety. There is drag, there is disguise, there are dancing girls. There is innuendo in an age that no longer needs its coy veils. Yet it is gloriously, liberatingly funny, its root traditions and core values enduring past any isms or trends, stretching back to the age of Plautus and his sly slaves, braggart soldiers and groping fools. Time flies when you’re having fun, and Edward Hall’s exuberant production is certainly timeless.

Sondheim’s stage-storming opening number, Comedy Tonight, a riot of props and pantomime, is also an act of generosity, laying the show’s cue cards on the table with the gayest abandon. It’s the equivalent of arriving at a full-swing soirée and having a drink pushed into your hand — a party favour, a paper hat, a membership card. “Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek,” sing the cast, before turning to a dancing girl with a baby and a knife in her hand. “She plays Medea later this week.” The audience are promised “nothing that’s formal, nothing that’s normal”, yet while there are mishaps and deviance and courtesans, really, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is formal, normal comedy of the highest order: an ageless ritual, a comedy gene that has survived, unmutated, for thousands of years.

This is an audience who probably know a bit about Plautus, not to mention world affairs and economic policy — yet here they are, hissing, when the domineering wife appears. The comedy might be broader than a mother-in-law’s beam, yet it’s rarely coarse, and while there are jokes that are not so much chestnuts as great big conkers, it’s so well tuned, so refined, it’s a joy to behold. “Walk this way,” the slave Pseudolus (Desmond Barrit) instructs a Roman legion, and yes, they all copy his hammy limp. It’s a joke as old as the seven hills of Rome, yet still everyone laughs. This is the stuff that is hard-wired into you, every bit as profound as it is silly.

Philip as Mile Gloriosus

Shevelove and Gelbart’s plundering of Plautus has left them with a convoluted plot concerning mistaken identity, improbable disguise and thwarted love, the sort of thing that would have even Shakespeare spluttering popcorn into his beard. Pseudolus is the audience’s guide to this hoopla, a cunning slave who has cut a deal with his young master, Hero (Vince Leigh) — he gains his freedom if he can fix Hero up with a courtesan from the brothel next door. However, the beautiful but amoeba-dim Philia (Caroline Sheen) has already been sold to the thunderous military captain Miles Gloriosus (Philip Quast), a man so enchanted by his own muscular thighs that he announces: “I am a parade.” A plot is devised involving a potion, a plague and a lot of lying — until circumstances lead Hero’s goatish old father, Senex (the excellent Sam Kelly), to make the girl his “maid”, while his snake-haired wife, Domina (Isla Blair — the virginal Philia in the original London production), is away. That’s before the case of mistaken identity involving twins. Scattered with Sondheim’s witty, literate songs — not all as sing-it-in-the-shower catchy as Comedy Tonight, perhaps, but all beautifully done — the daft comedy is only accentuated.

t’s up to Pseudolus to drag the audience in with a turn and a smirk, and Barrit is effortlessly ripe, winking at Eric Morecambe and Frankie Howerd without emulating either of them too closely — a grin of unabashed glee here, some eyebrow-waggling outrage there. Kelly’s Senex is equally cherishable, a silly old man from the dirty-toga brigade, an ancient Jack Sprat. When he and Domina are reunited (“Father and mother, get one another”), he chimes in bleakly: “A tragedy tonight.”

It’s no wonder that the real hit of the show is the octopus-handed daydream of Everybody Ought To Have a Maid, where Pseudolus and Senex sing about the joys of a willing menial, a salacious, simpering routine that condenses all the great double acts into one soft-shoe shuffle before the other male leads are lured in.

The rest of the cast are as vivid and sharply defined as an Asterix cartoon. Sheen’s Welsh Philia sounds alarmingly like Helen, the ex-Big Brother starlet famous for the immortal words “I like blinkin’, I do”; her rendition of Lovely is as sweet and airheaded as candyfloss. The song is equally hilarious when reprised by a disguised Hysterium (Hamish McColl), the supposedly sensible slave who is lured into Pseudolus’s web of deceit and makes comic hay with his crossed lines and cross-dressing. David Schneider’s mask-like face is put to excellent use as the pimp Lycus, and Blair is impressively fierce as the wife with a battle-axe to grind.

The staging is fully exploited for vaudevillian touches — the big theatrical hamper at the start, which shows a production prepared to rummage through its bag of tricks, the lion’s paw appearing from a trap door, the obscene pottery, the steaming horse dung, all chiming with Julian Crouch’s Monty Python-style set.

Performing this must be the most fun you can have with your toga on, and the cast — particularly the gymnastic courtesans and male Proteans — throw themselves into it with glee. At one point, Kelly’s robes get caught in a revolving door. “Shall I go out and come back in again?” he asks. “If you insist on milking it,” swipes McColl. Ultimately, the real joy here is seeing something done well. It might not be high tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s low-rent. This lurid caper says as much about human impulses and needs as any death-and-war palaver; and, accordingly, all those old clichés ring true.

The crowd actually roar, the house is brought down and, through the laughter, your heart is warmed like poor old Senex’s loins. More than 40 — or even 2,000 — years on, there is still something for everyone.


by John Gross, Sunday Telegraph 18 July 2004

Shakespeare, Molière, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove the list of theatrical writers who have borrowed from the Roman comedies of Plautus contains some notable names. And while I don't know whether A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (book by Shevelove and Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) will last as long as The Comedy of Errors or L'Avare, it offers modern audiences at least as much honest entertainment.

The show proceeds on the sound comic principle that the simpler the characters, the more complicated the plot. It takes some of Plautus's stock types the wily slave, the lecherous old man, the military braggart and so on; it whisks them round in a whirl of trickery and intrigue. And the whole thing is consummately managed, with the help of songs that expand on the action and speed it along.

It is also intensely theatrical, trading heavily on stage artifice and audience-contact. The opening number, 'Comedy Tonight', is a classic warm-up: it advertises pleasures to come in a series of intoxicating jingles “Something that's gaudy, something that's bawdy and spreads out the show's wares with an exuberance which makes you wonder whether the rest of the evening can avoid seeming a let-down. But there's no need to worry: high levels of energy and invention are maintained throughout.

All this assumes a good production, however. Larry Gelbart himself has said that if the show isn't done with really top talent, it looks “dumb and juvenile”. But I'd be surprised if he wasn't happy with the talent which has gone into Edward Hall's new production at the Olivier Theatre. Hall's staging hits the right broad note from the start, and it never falters.

Desmond Barrit plays the key role of the slave Pseudolus, in a manner which owes little to Frankie Howerd or his other famous predecessors, but which has its own unbeatable charm. He is quick rather than sly, and as relaxed as frenetic circumstances will allow. For all his dodges, you feel he is essentially genial, even a bit innocent; his eyes tend to widen rather than narrow when the show's many sexual attractions come his way. Yet he can be imposing, too. He has the look of a somewhat battered Roman emperor.

The suppporting roles are virtually a succession of star turns. Sam Kelly excels as old Senex, hot in pursuit of the gorgeous airhead Philia (Caroline Sheen) lechery gleaming from his very glasses. Hamish McColl, as Pseudolus's fellow-slave Hysterium, undergoes multiple humiliations with a beguiling nervous smile. Philip Quast as Miles Gloriosus, the bomabastic conquering hero, is glorious indeed. Isla Blair (who was Philia in the original London production) is suitably dragonish as Senex's wife. And it would be hard to improve on the rich assortment of courtesans, or on David Schneider as their spectacularly ill-favoured boss.

The songs are delivered with great spirit, too. The funniest is 'Lovely', Philia's hymn to her one talent, but others run it close 'Impossible', which is the verdict Senex and his virginal son (Vince Leigh) deliver on each other as potential lovers; the salivating male quartet 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid'; 'I'm Calm', which is sung by Hysterium (who palpably isn't)

Pondering the score, which dates from 1962, I found myself recalling a skit on Sondheim which parodied his later development with a joke-version of 'Comedy Tonight' “something elitist, something defeatist”. A Funny Thing is relatively primitive stuff, and you can see why Sondheim felt he had to go on to sterner challenges. But watching this spelndid revival you can't help regretting the simpler pleasures that have been lost in the process.

Rome sweet Rome

The National's hilarious revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a triumph of vulgarity over nostalgia. On the same stage, young Cumbrians are keen to let the bedbug bite

by Kate Kellaway, The Observer, Sunday July 18, 2004

Before A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has started, the audience is confronted with the sight of grim classical statuary - white Roman busts uncomfortably accommodated in the Olivier theatre's every spare orifice. They look hilarious and cast a stony eye on the stage.

You know you are in for a giggle at once, but will Edward Hall's revival of this 1962 Broadway musical do more than rest on past laurels? When Desmond Barrit saunters on as Pseudolus, it seems as if Frankie Howerd, a legend in the role, has been nudged back into life - and perhaps some element of homage is intended.

But Hall's show cannily permits nostalgia without depending upon it, and Barrit more than survives as his own man, relaxed and rouged, with a comic air of defeat at the lascivious shenanigans in which he finds himself involved. Isla Blair, who made her name in the original London production as Philia, returns as Domina - loud-mouthed, copper-haired and in pursuit of her husband, Senex - an absurd old man about to sew his 'last wild oat'.

This is the first score in which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics and they are a treat. The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is inspired by Plautus, a dramatist from the third century BC, and the result is a hoot, mind-blowingly incorrect at all times. Vince Leigh in his nifty mini-toga looks more like a dazed Wimbledon champion than an amorous Roman. But his little song, 'Love, I Hear', is perfect in its way. He enjoys swooning and so do we - he has such a lovely voice.

Vulgarity would seem to be the new good taste at the National and we goggle at the rhubarb-pink stage (design Julian Crouch) and the sight of Lycus (David Schneider), a pimp with a drippy beard and purple crushed velvet garb who, fluent as a cartoon, expertly unrolls a courtesan from a carpet. Other good-time girls follow one by one: Tintinabula (Jane Fowler); Panacea (Lorraine Stewart) the Geminae (Simone de la Rue and Hayley Newton); Vibrata (Michelle Lukes) and Gymnasia (Tiffany Graves) each more provocative than the last.

But none stirs the male soul more than Philia, the ultimate dumb blonde. Caroline Sheen sings 'Lovely' ('Lovely is the one thing I can do') with ecstatic stupidity; she deserves her ancient admirer, Senex (Sam Kelly) - dressed in a dubious tunic of orange silk with a maroon sash, unfortunate primrose and ochre tassels and filled with a silly self-approval that brings the house down: 'Something smells divine - and it's me!


by Georgina Brown, The Mail on Sunday 18 July 2004 (5 Star rating)

Why on earth is Nick Hytner's dynamic, on-the-pulse National Theatre, staging an utterly trivial, outrageously un-PC musical farce of absolutely no social significance set in ancient Rome and featuring brainless scantily clad bimbos, screaming eunuchs, steaming horse-droppings and erotic pottery? It's Carry On Up The Coliseum, and no mistake.

The answer is simple: 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum' is one of the silliest, fastest, funniest farces ever to have been written. It is a pantomime for grown-ups, deliciously dirty, blissfully bawdy and as camp as Christmas.

And it is also absolutely right and proper that as well as staging David Hare's hot-off-the-press response to war, 'Stuff Happens' and Alan Bennet's latest masterpiece, 'The History Boys', Hytner should celebrate the full breadth of our theatrical inheritance, with the accent on the hysterical rather than historical.

The original production ran for nearly 1000 performances and a London version with Frankie Howerd (who else?) was a hit in 1963 and again in 1986, but I had not seen the show until this glorious, deft revival by Edward Hall.

Back in the Sixties, Broadway's best screenwriters, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, plagiarised the plot from Plautus, the playwright who wrote tunic-dropping farces in Latin centuries before Jesus hit Jerusalem.

The story - not that's remotely important - concerns a slave, Pseudolus, who does a deal with Hero, his old master Senex's dim but dishy son. Pseudolus will gain his freedom if he somehow manages to get Hero off with Philia, the vacuous, virginal would-be courtesan ('I'm lovely. All I am is lovely. Lovely is all that I can do', sings Caroline Sheen, spot-on as the winsome airhead).

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music as well as the tongue-in-cheek smutty lyrics, and the joyous opening number, 'Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone, a comedy tonight', says it all perfectly.

The show-stopping 'Everybody Ought To Have A Maid', sung by randy fantasists Sam Kelly, Des Barrit and Hamish McColl, any of whom would have given Benny Hill a run for his money, is a triumph, with rhymes Cole Porter would not have been ashamed of.

Barrit, slipping into Pseudolus's sandals, is his own man, likeably naughty and always funny, but never more so than when his nose is buried in a cleavage. Kelly is marvellous as the dirty old man eager to get up to whatever he can when his bossy wife (Isla Blair) takes her beady eye off him, and McColl brings the house down singing 'I'm lovely', his hairy armpits and muscles spilling from his outsize frock.

Old-fashioned? You bet; but astonishingly sprightly for a plot that predates the Bible. At £10 a ticket, and offering much more than a laugh a minute, a very cheap thrill indeed.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Wat To The Forum

by Gerald Berkowitz , Theatre Guide London, 12th July 2003

The National Theatre's summer musical for 2004 is an unqualified winner. They've revived one of the very best of all comic musicals, and it is a hoot and a half from start to finish.

Even without the sprightly music and witty lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (written before he became operatically ambitious and - dare I say it? - occasionally a wee bit pretentious), the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would be one of the funniest farces ever.

Piecing together bits of a half-dozen classic Roman comedies, Shevelove and Gelbart created the ultimate fast-moving comedy of lies, intrigues and thinking-on-one's-feet. And the fact that the characters pause every once in a while to sing is pure bonus.

In order to gain his freedom, a wily slave must help his young master get the girl. But she's a courtesan promised to a general, and in the escalating scheming the girl somehow thinks the hero's father is the general, the father thinks she's the maid, the general thinks the brothel keeper is a leper, another slave pretends to be the girl, a couple of magic potions get involved, and an old man runs seven times around the seven hills of Rome in hopes of finding his long-lost children.

I've actually left a lot out, but you get the idea. What starts off as a simple bit of trickery gets ever more involved as new lies have to be invented on the spot and the wrong people kept from meeting each other. And in the middle of it all, they sing.

Director Edward Hall, up to now one of our most impressive young Shakespearean directors, proves totally at home in the realm of musical farce, keeping everything moving as fast as possible, and even managing to anchor the whole hot air balloon in enough of a hint of reality to keep it from floating away altogether.

Just about every star who has played the slave Pseudolus, from Zero Mostel through Frankie Howerd to Whoopie Goldberg, has made him something of a larger-than-life cartoon. But Desmond Barrit, himself an accomplished Shakespearean, manages to make him real without losing a bit of the funniness.

From the moment he sings one of his first songs, a paean to the prospect of being free, this Pseudolus is established as a man with real feelings, and from then on Barrit somehow makes his wildest inventions, classic doubletakes and frantic actions all remain just barely within the boundaries of the possible and realistic. And far from spoiling the farce, that enriches it immensely.

This anchor in reality is shared with Vince Leigh as the young lover, who comes across as less of a ninny than others have made him, simply because he has the good sense to rely on this clever Pseudolus, and it frees up the rest of the cast to play their roles as broadly as the farce will bear.

Caroline Sheen's heroine, described in one of the songs as having only one talent, being lovely, is the essence of air-headed blonde. Sam Kelly's father is dirty old man personified when he isn't being henpecked husband personified. Philip Quast's general is a walking legend-in-his-own-mind. And Hamish McColl as the fellow slave who is Pseudolus' unwilling second banana and stooge, almost eclipses memories of the great Jack Gilford as the pure essence of panic.

And then there are the songs. From Comedy Tonight, one of the greatest opening numbers in the history of the Broadway musical, through the show-stopping Everybody Ought To Have A Maid, to the somehow simultaneously sweet and funny ballad Lovely, this is Sondheim at play, and you'd have to go back to the days of Cole Porter to find lyrics as clever set to melodies as hummable.

Can you possibly need any more reason to see this winner? Well, it's part of the National Theatre's second Travelex-sponsored cheap-seat summer, with most seats only £10 and none higher than £25.


ARTS: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

By Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times; 13th July, 2004

Desmond Barrit bellows out the opening number, "Comedy Tonight" in what James Joyce called a "bass barreltone". As proceedings continue, one grows to suspect that singing ability was not uppermost in director Edward Hall's mind when casting (pacestage-musical stalwart Philip Quast).

Along with this suspicion, however, grows the conviction that it does not matter. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a farce with songs, albeit that the songs are by Stephen Sondheim; what counts is the way Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart mix together several 2200-year-old plots by Plautus into one delightful, pell-mell heap.

When crafty slave Pseudolus is offered his freedom if he can set his young master up with a certain girl, you already know that there are going to be all sorts of extravagant schemes, ludicrous disguises and mistaken identities, no doubt entailing drag. Knowing all that, you just sit back and enjoy it unfolding over two and a quarter hours.

Barrit has an excellent stage demeanour for the part of Pseudolus. It is not so much that he works the audience as that he feels like one of us, chatting away rather than speechifying, and ad-libbing when things go awry. He is not the most physically energetic - he tends to saunter rather than hare - but he gives a very economical impression of frenzy by adroit use of voice and gesture.

As Pseudolus's sidekick, Hysterium, Hamish McColl is effectively Barrit's equal. McColl, co-creator of the ongoing stage hit The Play What I Wrote, has the knack of making every line he ever utters, whether it is by Eddie Braben or Bertolt Brecht, sound as if it were written especially for that eager, slightly finicky but ultimately hapless persona of his. A whole clutch of familiar faces - Sam Kelly, Isla Blair, David Schneider, Harry Towb and the aforementioned Quast - career around this central duo.

Being both Roman in origin and 1960s in its refurbishment, the nudge-nudge quotient is high, but it is the kind of bawdy that seems not to date. The origins of the student toga party are no longer a mystery. And if you want a set design that is clever, versatile and inexpensive, then contact Improbable Theatre mainstay Julian Crouch, who works the necessary miracles to make the show appear spectacular while keeping it within the financial constraints of the National Theatre's second Travelex £10 season. I can think of absolutely no reason why anyone in search of good clean dirty fun should not rush to the South Bank forthwith.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

by Peter Hepple The Stage 13th July 2004

Despite the fact the lyrics and music are by Stephen Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is not regarded as one of the master's greatest works. The book is by a pair of practised funsters and the aim of the show is purely to entertain - which it does magnificently under Edward Hall's direction, the only thing remotely classical in a musical set in 200 BC being that it is loosely, in every sense of the word, based on a story by Plautus about a conniving slave who creates mayhem in the lives of his masters.

What it actually amounts to is a paean of praise to vaudeville, offering us a host of wonderful old routines which have stood the test of time in a manner few people, even 40 years ago, could have thought possible. Secondly, it is a feast of camp, with its chorus of limp-wristed eunuchs who also do service as stupid soldiery, its ultra-feminine, brainless girls, a dirty old man, his dragon of a wife, a dotard forced to run round the seven hills of Rome, a preposterous general and a luridly sexless procurer.

At its centre is the slave Pseudolus, originally played in London by Frankie Howerd. Though strongly resembling the much-missed Howerd, Barrit is more generous with his superb comedy talents. Far from milking every line and situation, Barrit is content to fade into the background occasionally while still managing to remain in charge of the proceedings, which oddly enough still makes him the centre of attention.

He is strongly assisted, however, by Hamish McColl as his fellow slave Hysterium, David Schneider as the absurdly sinister Lycus, Vince Leigh as the bemused young Hero and Harry Towb as Erronius, while Sam Kelly in ripe music hall form and Isla Blair as his ferocious wife carry the main plot.

Add to this Philip Quast as the grandiloquent general and a collection of striking young women, with Caroline Sheen as the unbelievably virginal Philia, and you have a show which is a joy from beginning to end and will surely enjoy a long life at the National and elsewhere.

Ancient Rome - with dirty old men

Review by Charles Spencer, The Telegraph 12 July 2004

There may have been more tuneful, more touching, more ambitious musicals than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), but I can think of none that is more spectacularly generous when it comes to the gags.

It was the first show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, and it kicks off with one of the most exuberant opening numbers that he, or anyone else, has ever penned, Comedy Tonight. The promise of that song is abundantly fulfilled in the delirious two hours that follow, as scriptwriters Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove adapt the comedies of the Roman dramatist Plautus.

In an excellent programme essay, Gelbart, best known for the TV series M*A*S*H, writes that the aim of the show was to fill the "vulgarity vacuum" created by the more serious musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe. In this ambition the writers succeeded.

The piece is a riot of sexy courtesans out of burlesque, gags that owe more to ancient vaudeville than ancient Rome, and such imperishable stock characters as the dirty old man, the dumb blonde and the bossy old bag of a wife.

The comic plot never stops boiling in a show that creates mounting farcical mayhem with rare precision. As Gelbart ruefully recalls, it took five years and endless rewrites to get Forum right, but the authors' pain has ensured our pleasure. There isn't a moment when the pace lets up or the gags fall flat.

Edward Hall directs with the relish and deft invention of a man who knows he's got a brilliantly crafted hit on his hands, while Rob Ashford's acrobatic choreography is a witty, often highly sexy delight, especially when the delicious corps of courtesans, catering to every possible male fantasy, go through their highly inventive paces.

But what makes this revival special is the tremendous sense of ensemble, the feeling that here is a group of actors who are really sparking off each other and having just as much fun as the audience.

Leading the gang is Desmond Barrit, following in the footsteps of Zero Mostel and Frankie Howerd as the crafty slave Pseudolus. These are daunting talents to follow, but Barrit makes the role his own. He may have lost a few stone in recent years, but he has lost none of his charm, button-holing the audience with easy familiarity, eyeing up the shamelessly gamy courtesans with hilarious, slack-jawed incredulity, and blundering from one crisis to the next with comic aplomb. Few performers create such a palpable sense of warmth and complicity on stage.

He has a wonderful cast to work with. Sam Kelly is a delight as the randy old Senex, inflamed with lust by the sight of Caroline Sheen's touchingly willing virgin, Philia, before shrivelling in terror when confronted with his old boot of a wife, imperiously played by Isla Blair.

There's lovely work, too, from Hamish McColl as the neurotic slave Hysterium; from Harry Towb as a doddery old man in forlorn search of his missing children; and from Philip Quast as the Plautus regular, Miles Gloriosus, a vain soldier.

Apart from the opening number, the score isn't one of Sondheim's greatest, but its verbal wit and bouncy brio fit the script like a glove. And with many tickets costing only a tenner in the National's Travelex £10 season, this preposterously enjoyable show is also one hell of a bargain.

Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Review by Alan Bird, London Theatre Guide,10 July 2004

Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim had become disgruntled with the fact that Broadway’s musical comedies where proficient on show stopping tunes, but inept when it came to humour. They wanted to see bellyaching laughter returned to the heart of the musical comedy and so began their four-year collaboration (1958 – 61) on ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’.

Double entendres, mistaken identity, and insults abound in this farcical story about hen-pecked husbands, gorgon wives, silly old codgers pursuing dim-witted virgins, lascivious but inexperienced young men, prostitutes, soldiers and eunuchs. The farcical chaos is unleashed in the household of Senex when his wife Domina leaves for the country and the household slave Pseudolus seizes his opportunity to plot his freedom.

Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart deliberately plagiarised from the ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. Plautus wrote a succession of comedies based around the character of Pseudolus, a slave who in exchange for his freedom was willing to devise any chaotic plan to have his young master ‘Hero’ declare him a free citizen of Rome. If this sounds familiar it is because the popular BBC comedy “Up Pompeii” starring Frankie Howard was more or less based upon “A Funny Thing Happened …”

Desmond Barritt is jovially camp as Pseudolus and he draws the audience into an intimate bond of mirth as he knowingly winks and smirks in our direction while attempting to orchestrate the growing bedlam on stage. Sam Kelly is equally delightful as Senex, the husband of Domina who sings of her husband as being “That lecherous, lewd, lascivious, loathsome, lying, lazy, dirty old man of mine!” Both these actors fully enjoy the lampoonery and have a contagious sense of fun.

Philil as Miles Gloriosus surrounded by Courtesans

Hamish McColl as “Hysterium” is hysterical as the slave endlessly manipulated by Pseudolus, especially when he is persuaded to dress as the virgin Philia - watching him trying to imitate girlish charms while pretending to be a corpse is a moment of farcical delight. Philip Quast is equally amusing as the thick-headed muscle bound roman soldier “Miles Gloriosus” especially in the scene where Gloriosus mourns the death of Philia.

Many of the actors are not natural singers, especially Isla Blair who as Domina - croaks her way through the song “That Dirty Old Man”, but this hardly matters as none of the tunes are particularly memorable except the opening number “Comedy Tonight”.

Edward Hall’s production ensues that Sondheim’s later reputation for high culture never has an opportunity to intrude upon this light-hearted farce. From the opening scene to the final act the stage is full to bursting with the zany nonsense of vaudeville.

“A Funny Thing Happened …” is high camp entertainment; do not go expecting to hear great music or a sophisticated comedy. The opening verse of the first song says it all “Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone. A comedy tonight!”

These rampant Romans are a riot of laughs and I'm all forum

by Quentin Letts, Daily Mail 12 July 2004

To the great, neglected god Farce, hail. At he Royal National Theatre the stalls are shaking with laughter as students, families and pin-striped bankers gas themselves at the company's big new show.

Plenty of funny things happen on the way to this forum. Bosoms wobble, old gropers' eyes (and groins) bulge and a lion burps after devouring a slave. Forum is musical, exhausting and probably terribly shallow. But it's the greatest fun.

We're in Rome circa 200 BC. A slave called Pseudolus has been promised his freedom if he can fix it for his young master to bag a virgin. She's busty Philia, Ancient Rome's answer to glamour model Jordan - but slightly thicker.

The convoluted plot was not actually scripted by Roman playwright Plautus, but was heavily adapted from his characters by the 1950s American writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. And there, if you need an excuse, is the artistic truth in this rampant comedy. Two millennia ago husbands were just as henpecked, and foolish, as they are today.

Stephen Sondheim's opening number, Comedy Tonight, sets the jaunty tone. David Schneider, who plays a courtesan seller, is outrageous. A real King Leer. Outside cartoon strips you never saw a mouth so wide, so elastic. Sam Kelly is wonderful as the bottom-pincher Senex, his pebble glasses smudged with lust. Philip Quast's soldier has thighs like a couple of York hams and the square-jawed vain gloriousness of Buzz Lightyear. Throughout the cast, exuberant mirth.

Amid such quality, one quibble. Last Thursday Desmond Barrit's lead character of Pseudolus was a degree or two short of the boil. Maybe it was an off night, or maybe Barrit is too generous a company player, reluctant to upstage colleagues. He will be compared to the late Frankie Howerd, some of whose mannerisms - a scratch behind the ear, a limp right hand - Barrit echoes. Yet he lacks Howerd's campness, just as he lacks the con-man patter Phil Silvers gave Pseudolus in the 1966 film of Forum.

Never mind? The prolonged climax of slapstick entrances, exits, kicks up the backside, mistaken identities and all-falldowns is a skilful and fast a piece of theatre as you could hope to see! Forum is fab.

A Funny Thing Happened ...

by Michael Billington , The Guardian Monday July 12, 2004 (5 Star Rating)

Why should the National revive this evergreen mix of Plautine comedy and American vaudeville? One answer, as Edward Hall's joyously eclectic production proves, is that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is both a nostalgic throwback and a pioneering experiment - a musical farce predating The Producers by 40 years.

The book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart is a brilliant synthesis of stock characters from Plautus: the manipulative slave, the military braggart, the senescent lecher. But, into this cat's cradle of a plot about the attempts of Pseudolus to secure a bride for his master, Stephen Sondheim has inserted a group of songs that literally stop the show. Instead of advancing the story, they provide a musical respite; and, although Sondheim once said that "about three-quarters of the score is wrong", here a dozen wrongs add up to a right.

Hall instantly grasps the show's formal playfulness by making the opening number, Comedy Tonight, a comic climax: as Pseudolus itemises the evening's ingredients, including tumblers who pop out of a skip like jacks-in-the-box, they coalesce to form a high-kicking finale. Having started, as it were, at the end, Hall is then free to focus on the show's constituent parts. And nothing is more characteristic of Sondheim's elegant wit than a number like Free, in which Pseudolus hymns the joys of liberty, which include "the right to buy a slave for me".

But the production's success lies in its ability to draw together a whole range of performance traditions. Desmond Barrit, an RSC Falstaff, lends Pseudolus his own brand of roguish geniality: even the moment when his eyes lasciviously follow a courtesan's rotating hips is purged of offence by his unthreatening charm. Sam Kelly's hilariously goggle-eyed Senex, meanwhile, belongs to the old music-hall tradition of the hen-pecked husband.

Hall has shrewdly recruited the Right Size's Hamish McColl to play the quivering Hysterium. Philip Quast parodies the macho solemnity he has brought to earlier musicals by playing Miles Gloriosus as a vain sex object suspending his helmet from his private parts. The courtesans, dominated by Tiffany Graves's whip-cracking Gymnasia, come from some limitless beauty pool. Even the design, by Improbable's Julian Crouch, gives a Roman street an ironic antiquity. The result is a ministry of all the talents that does rich justice to this vertiginously funny show.

Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

By Mark Shenton, Whats On Stage, 12 July 2004 (4 Star rating)

Why shouldn’t the National let its hair down once in a while? The new production of the 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, being presented as part of the Travelex £10 season in the NT Olivier, is the perfect summer treat. And also, it so happens, the perfect piece for the scaled-down scenic resources of the £10 aesthetic, since the set it gets here is precisely the one this show usually gets, namely simple representations of the three houses in Rome, circa 200 BC, in front of which all the action takes place.

Here, to the accompaniment of a treasurable set of irresistibly witty songs (Stephen Sondheim’s first produced score for which he wrote both songs and lyrics), is unleashed a set of collisions in the guise of a hilarious sex farce.

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Edward Hall’s swift, sunny and funny production also honours the clockwork precision of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book, inspired by the ribald plays of Plautus, and the comic rigour of their construction, and contains a set of performances that range from the blissful to the occasionally bashful.

Let’s air the only small grievance first. Desmond Barrit - following in the very large footsteps of Zero Mostel who created the role of Pseudolus originally on Broadway in 1962, and Frankie Howerd who made it his own over here - he is (at least at the moment) surprisingly tentative as a slave yearning for his freedom and plotting to obtain it by securing the virginal courtesan from the brothel next door for his young master Hero.

Usually this bulky, brilliant actor dominates any stage he’s on. But, for now, he’s taking a backseat to the hilarious scene-stealing revelations of the evening, Sam Kelly’s Senex and Hamish McColl as Senex’s slave Hysterium.

Kelly possesses a barely disguised sense of amused anarchy, as obstinately mischievous as his character is infinitely lecherous, that makes him a joy to watch. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. His performance is the musical equivalent of watching Michael Gambon, and I can think of no higher theatrical praise. And to see The Right Size’s McColl – a picture of constant panic as a fellow slave thrown into containing the spiralling confusion - is to spot someone who himself could one day play a great Pseudolus himself.

But that’s to single out only two of a richly inhabited ensemble that elsewhere includes a brilliantly pompous turn from Philip Quast as the vain and muscular warrior Miles Gloriousus, and two sweetly appealing leads from Vince Leigh and Caroline Sheen.

This is a show, it’s true, with which it’s difficult to go too wrong, since it’s so tightly constructed: just perform it as written and it’ll fly. Hall’s cast do so and it does.

Hysterium fills vulgarity vacuum

By Benedict Nightingale, The Times 10th July 2004 (4 Star Rating)

LARRY GELBART, who created this gloriously mischievous show with Burt Shevelove and a youthful Stephen Sondheim in 1962, wrote later that he felt the Broadway musical comedy had become too musical and not comical enough. The likes of Rodgers, Hart Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, “brilliant men of music and artists of great refinement, had created a vulgarity vacuum, a space we were happy to fill”.

And fill it they did, as Edward Hall’s exuberant revival at the National, of all places, proved last night. When did that theatre last stage a piece in which women are matriarchal battleaxes, bimbos or tarts with names like Vibrata or (for a whip-wielding dominatrix) Gymnasia, men are always randy, and scuttling, fluting eunuchs are inherently funny? It’s as if the spirit of Donald McGill has joined with the ghosts of the Carry On team to remind us that this is the silly season — and to attack the show would be like lambasting Goofy for his unsubtle ears.

And if you think the piece old hat, you’re right, because virtually all its stereotypes and situations are 2,200 years old. Plautus created Pseudolus, the wily slave, the depraved Jeeves, who sorts out the escalating muddle created by his sexually eager young master, the lad’s lecherous father and fierce mother, and Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier affianced to the still-virginal courtesan the boy loves. Desmond Barrit, who plays him, hasn’t the lewdness or the slyness Frankie Howard and Zero Mostel respectively brought to the role, and his singing voice left me wondering if he’d been gargling with the bits of statuary that had fallen off the Roman houses outside which the action occurs. But, yes, he’s great company: good-natured, quick-witted, ebulliently in command of the vast Olivier stage.

There are also nice performances from Philip Quast as the skirted general who hopes for sex before he returns to “the shrines I should be sacking, the ribs I should be cracking”, from Sam Kelly as an aging husband furtively on the prowl for a fling, and Caroline Sheen as their prey, the pouting Barbie Doll who sings “I’m lovely, all I am is lovely, lovely is the one thing I do.” Sondheim’s only hummable song may be the opener, “comedy tonight”, but there’s evidence galore of his gift for lyrics, if not yet the sardonic lyrics we now know and try to love.

It’s a show that makes you listen even while you’re boggling at chaos which, for me, hit its top when Pseudolus’s flustered fellow-slave, Hamish McColl’s Hysterium, was trying to be a) female b) pretty c) dead d)not cremated by a noisily grieving Miles Gloriosus. How did he get into that fix? With all the logic that can be mustered by Plautus, his US adaptors and the gods of farce. And that’s more than enough.

Gaudy and bawdy revival lives up to the hype as a cornucopia of delight

By Paul Taylor, Independent 10th July 2004

The rousing opening number is a brazen sales-pitch: "Something that's gaudy, Something that's bawdy, Something for everybawdy, Comedy tonight!" But the knowing cheek of it is simply irresistible. Besides which, as Edward Hall's blissfully hilarious Olivier revival now demonstrates, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum succeeds in living up to this hectic hype.

With an entire chorus emerging from a theatrical wardrobe basket and a climactic high-kicking line-up five minutes in, the musical prelude here comes over as a rip-roaring finale.

And that's as it should be, because this 1962 Broadway musical - boasting a glorious gag-fest of a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and the first score for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the tunes as well as the lyrics - gives a spiffy, spoofing American vaudeville spin to the Roman farce conventions of the dramatist, Plautus, a third century BC guy who had earlier helped Shakespeare out with the plot of Comedy of Errors.

A delirium of good, clean, filthy fun, the plot is propelled by the wily, manipulative slave Pseudolus who has to struggle with the escalating complications that ensue when he attempts to secure his freedom by securing a match between his master's blond, dimwitted, virginal son Hero (Vince Leigh) and the even blonder, dimmer and more virginal courtesan Philia (Caroline Sheen).

The course of true chicanery never did run smooth and the premature return of his master, not to mention the grandiose arrival of the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus (a ludicrously thick, muscly-thighed and macho Philip Quast) who has already bought but not collected Philia, are not kind to the collective blood-pressure on stage.

The delicious thing is that, at the centre of this cartoon heterosexual frenzy we have the incomparable figure of Desmond Barrit, playing Pseudolus, constantly tipping the wink that we're watching a piece of theatre, and as incongruously camp as row of Welsh wigwams. To use a nice Roman word, this is a cornucopia of delight.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Reviewed by Neil Ludwick, from a preview performance, London, June 28, 2004, Cutlturevulture.net

Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, breezes into the Olivier Theatre for the summer season. Edward Hall's highly entertaining and outrageous new production explodes with comic invention and is performed by a dynamic ensemble led by Desmond Barrit as Pseudolus, the crafty Roman slave. Barrit delivers a performance to treasure: his manipulation of the other characters is laser sharp as is his comic timing. His rapport with the audience is magical.

The book is a clever synthesis of plots from the pen of the Roman comic playwright Plautus, including The Haunted House, Pseudolus and Miles Gloriosus. The plot follows Plautus' standard structure - while the Master and Mistress are away, sons and slaves will play - resulting in more and more intricate cover-ups when they return. When Senex and Domita go to the countryside to visit Domita's mother, their slave Pseudolus decides to help their son Hero to elope with Philia, a virgin from Crete living in Lycos' 'House of Women' next door. Pseudolus' continual attempts to bring Hero and Philia together and then to cover up the plot when first Senex and then Domita return result in a series of comical misadventures, cover-ups and twists.

The musical successfully adapts the traditions of Roman low comedy to the 20th century conventions of American musical comedy/vaudeville. Though these traditions are centuries apart, they have strong similarities, notably romantic plot entanglements and up front delivery. The score includes some of Sondheim's most exuberant music and witty lyrics and positively sparkles from the opening number "A Comedy Tonight" to its reprise at the final curtain.

Where this new production scores is in Hall's addition of British ingredients to this Roman/American brew: Music Hall and the camp mock-epic style of the 1965 movie Carry on Cleo and the late sixties TV series Up Pompeii (which was itself based on Plautus and which starred the late Frankie Howerd - who played Pseudolus in the musical's 1963 London premiere). Indeed the whole production is given a sixties style: including black and white cutout Roman statues and chariots; garish make-up and costumes; ladies' quasi Roman/sixties' hairstyles; and Paul Anderson's nostalgic bright, colorful lighting and ubiquitous follow spots.

The dialogue and lyrics are uniformly played to their full comic potential by the ensemble as are the costumes, set, props, trap doors, special comic props and even the revolving Olivier stage. Rob Ashford's vaudevillian choreography is equally comically inventive. The standout is "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," with Des Barrit. The excellent Sam Kelly plays his master Senex and the most cuddly lecher ever to be seen on stage. David Schneider's brilliantly oily Lycos and Hamish McColl's effeminate Hysterium are consistent comic joys. Also impressive are the hilariously mega-macho entry of Miles Gloriosus (an impressively pompous Philip Quast) and the burlesque send-up "House of Lycos" where Lycos' ladies demonstrate their talents, reminiscent of the "You've Gotta Have a Gimmick" number from the earlier Jules Styne musical Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.


A funny thing happened...

Why did Stephen Sondheim, doyen of the sophisticated musical, get involved with a farce full of eunuch gags? And why is the National reviving it? Rhoda Koenig meets the director and the star of the new production.

Independent 17 June 2004

Desmond Barrit in Costume

The musical that will be revived at the National on 9 July is an extremely silly show about stereotypical characters. It has no social or political significance whatsoever, and not a moment of Weltschmerz or a scrap of angst. The songs are by Stephen Sondheim. And, no, that last sentence is not a mistake.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) is an oddity in the Sondheim catalogue for other reasons as well. The first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics (he had already collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and Jule Styne on Gypsy), it won Tony awards for best actor (Zero Mostel), best supporting actor (Jack Gilford), best librettists (Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove), best director (George Abbott) and best musical. But Sondheim was not even nominated, his songs having been deemed pleasant but irrelevant.

Furious at the time, he later credited Shevelove and Gelbart with the success of the show, saying that he had, after all, granted the former's request to write, as Meryle Secrest put it in her biography, "songs that could be removed without making the slightest difference". Edward Hall, however, directing the revival, which will star Desmond Barrit, says, "Oh, no they can't - he was being modest."

Whether you agree with Hall, or think, "Oh, yes they can", there's no doubt about the appeal of this pantomime for adults. The original production ran for nearly 1,000 performances (far longer than any subsequent Sondheim show) and the show was revived twice on Broadway: in 1972, with Phil Silvers and in 1996, with Nathan Lane. (Silvers, who had been the first choice for Pseudolus, the Roman slave who constantly outwits his masters, had turned it down, saying he had spent enough time playing Sergeant Bilko.)

A London version with Frankie Howerd (who reminded one critic of a cynical horse and another of a calculating camel) was a hit in 1963 and again in 1986. Barrit, who saw both, thinks for a moment when asked how Howerd had played it differently the second time, then replies: "Slower." Barrit, however, is not being given the option of ambling through the role. "It's the most physically exhausting thing I've done in my life," he says, "like running a marathon - in circles."

When the show is over, Barrit certainly feels as though he has run seven times round the seven hills of Rome, as one poor soul, duped by Pseudolus, is made to do. He has to pelt through doors and up and down stairs, his feet moving almost as quickly as his geometrically enlarging deceptions that drive the plot.

The story comes from three plays by Plautus, the Ray Cooney of Rome two centuries before Christ, who was the first to write about erring mortals rather than gods - other Plautine comedies inspired The Comedy of Errors and Molière's The Miser. Besides the manipulative Pseudolus, the characters include the ineptly lecherous Senex, married to Domina, whose name also sheds some light on her personality. Their son, Hero, loves Philia, who is promised to the boastful soldier Miles Gloriosus (also the name of another comedy by Plautus). When Miles swaggers into town, he sings, in direct translation from Plautus: "I am a parade!"

"Larry Gelbart says, every time he hears the audience laugh at that, he can't get over it," says Hall, "people laughing at a 2,000-year-old joke." The fresher ones are good, too. Pseudolus tells off an impertinent eunuch with: "Don't you lower your voice to me!", and Senex urges others to take from his marriage an important lesson: "Never fall in love during a total eclipse." Apart from its title, the play never indulges in anachronism, but a sharp, late-20th-century New York sensibility underlies its humour. While not overtly cynical, it exempts no one from ridicule. Instead of being the classic pair of sweet-but-boring lovers, Hero and Philia are a pair of birdbrains - though Philia is a bit more backward than her boyfriend. Assuring him that her heart will remain his, though everything else belongs to Miles, she sings, "When I kiss him, I'll be kissing you, so I'll kiss him morning and night - that'll show him!"

Though praised for the modernity and maturity he brought to musicals, Sondheim turns the clock back in this show, it is generally agreed, to a time before songs were integrated into the story and advanced character and plot. (Hall, again, thinks otherwise: "The songs put fantastic detail on the ideas so you can visualise them, and, in doing so, they progress the story.")

But, during the out-of-town try-outs, one of his numbers did something even more important than becoming a popular hit: it saved the show from closing on the road. Despite its hilarious script, Forum was dying, one night even playing to an audience of 50, when the director Jerome Robbins was brought in to doctor it. He diagnosed a need for an opening song that would make it clear, from the first, what kind of show the spectators were about to see. Sondheim came up with "Comedy Tonight", a shamelessly hucksterish number that sold the show to its audiences so well, they immediately changed from apathetic to ecstatic. ("They don't even", Barrit says, "have time to catch their breath.") This witty version of a variety-show opener trips along until the end of the bridge, when it slouches into a Mae West-style come-on, revelling in its own shamelessness. Miles' triumphal march steals from up-tempo good-time songs as well as pompous Hollywood music when he announces: "There are lands to conquer, cities to loot and people to degrade!" The one show-stopper, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", highlights the jokes with burlesque beats: "Oh! Oh! Wouldn't she be delightful, sweeping out (boom!), sleeping in (boom!)."

n fact, the whole show can be seen as a Valentine to the trouser-dropping school of comedy; a style that was vastly popular in silent films, vaudeville and burlesque (which, of course, was the subject of Sondheim's previous show, Gypsy) but was breathing its last when the creators of Forum were kids. Unlike those of our more sensitive era, comedians then were often thought funny in proportion to their poundage, and the notion of a fat slave (as Zero Mostel was) was inherently comic. Barrit now looks, let's say, a good eater, but he used to be quite fat. "No, you needn't qualify it. I was fat. You could have got all the girl dancers in this show into me and still have had room for a few more." Fatter is funnier, he agrees. "When you're fat, you can get away with more. People are more forgiving, and they find you more lovable. Even when fat people say nasty things, like Robert Morley playing Sheridan Whiteside, people think, 'Isn't he cuddly?'" There are comics, he acknowledges, who use their bulk in an aggressive way, but in this show Pseudolus never has the chance. "I get manhandled quite a lot," Barrit says, so he is able to do the big-but-helpless sort of comedy as well.

Hall thinks the mainspring of the comedy is the characters' desperation: "Everybody has something to hide, and something to lose. The more they have to lose, the funnier it gets." (Top of the list is Hysterium, perpetually in a state through being blackmailed by Pseudolus, who knows about his secret collection of erotic pottery.) Barrit also worries about what he and the rest of the cast could lose through their nightly workouts. "Now, you will come and see us early in the run, won't you?" he asks. "Do, because if you wait too long, you might not see us at all."

We would like to thank Ricia for providing us details of this article.


Desmond Barrit on Comedic Acting and following Frankie Howard

National Theatre News Update June 2004

When the Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way on the Forum was staged in London twenty years ago, Pseudolus was played by Frankie Howerd. I can still hear him saying every line, so in playing the part at the National, I’ve got to fight against that, try to unhear him, and make it my own.

I love musicals. There’s nothing more exciting than being behind a curtain and hearing the overture. The last one I did was My Fair Lady, a concert performance for eighteen thousand people in the Hollywood Bowl, with Jonathan Pryce, Lesley Garrett and myself. When the 140- piece orchestra started playing I burst into tears: the sheer volume of sound was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard.

My voice is a low baritone. When people say, “What’s your range?” I say, “I’ve no idea, I’ll sing for you and we’ll see.” Frankie Howerd and Zero Mostel, who played Pseudolus in America, didn’t really have voices, so it’s not being immodest to say mine is hugely better than theirs. As long as I’ve got 30 people singing behind me, I sound fantastic: it’s as if Gigli has been dug up and is on stage again.

I didn’t start acting until I was 32. I had no formal training, I just learnt by watching people. For some years I did pantomime, a good training for Forum, which gives you many opportunities to break down the fourth wall. Actors have a fear of looking at the audience. But if you look an individual directly in the eye and say, “Were you laughing?” they smile and chuckle. Then the people around them have the impression you’re talking to them, and it spreads.

Comedic acting demands a much more technical approach than dramatic acting. You have to superimpose the reality, because people won’t laugh unless they think you’re being sincere. Sadly, not so much validation is given to comedy: proper actors do Hamlet, non-proper ones do Bottom.

I’m not worried what kind of part I play. I look in the mirror in the morning and I see Brad Pitt. But nobody else does. So I have to go along with how others see me. If you ask an actor what he wants to do, he’ll say a bit of Shakespeare on Monday, a musical on Tuesday, a TV on Wednesday, a radio play on Thursday, an advert that pays you a lot of money on Friday, and the weekend to yourself. But you can’t choose. My criterion is whether a job excites me, and this Sondheim musical really does.

I don’t know where I fit as an actor. Adrian Noble said I was the RSC’s answer to light entertainment. With a face like mine, doing comedy is the obvious thing. But like all comedic actors I really want to do stuff that tugs at people’s heartstrings. I’ve enjoyed tremendously playing Falstaff, and Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, and Malvolio, who is a tragi-comic character. But Forum is a great opportunity to go out there and just have a bloody marvellous time.

Desmond Barrit was talking to Jonathan Croall.

Edward Hall’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Exclusive backstage pictures of Philip & some of the cast:

Cast memeberCast memberPropsPropsVibrata, Michelle Lukes Geminae, Simone De La Rue , Hayley Newton Philia, Caroline Sheen

Hero, Vince Leigh and Lycus, David SchneiderDavid SchneiderPseudolus, Desmond BarritPseudolus:,Desmond BarritPhil's notice board with good luck wishes.

Miles Gloriosus, Philip QuastMiles Gloriosus, Philip QuastMiles Gloriosus, Philip QuastMiles Gloriosus, Philip Quast

Philip leaving National on Bike{short description of image}

We would like to thank both Hazel and Kat for taking the time to send us these wonderful photographs.



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