It probably sounded like a real wheeze to take the much loved (and extremely profitable and award-laden) 1973 Paul Newman/Robert Redford caper movie, The Sting, tinker with it to make it a bit more audience friendly, then plonk it on stage as the first new production in one of London’s (allegedly newly refurbished) institutions, the venerable Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley, E1. Well, a great idea it may have seemed, but a great idea it most definitely was not.
For a start, a play about a petty crook, thief, and swindler wishing to commit even bigger crimes – especially as he appears to want to follow the course of action for no better reason other than that he can – shorn of star billing and the ability to linger languorously on close-ups of two of the most beautiful men in the history of cinema is unpleasant to say the least.
Here, with one of the most charisma-free pieces of miscasting in leading men I’ve seen in recent times, it becomes a mountain so high to scale that there is never any plausible chance of the otherwise decent, and at times even excellent cast ever pulling it off.
The story is, as I said, that of an uninspiring anti-hero, Hooker, (and I don’t care that you probably kept closely to David Ward’s screenplay in fabricating your dramatic work, David Rogers, this was a play before a live audience and needed to be better crafted in order to work as one) who is underplayed – or possibly under-directed – by Ross Forder.
Hooker’s swindling partner in crime is killed by someone they’ve robbed from, so he goes off to try to locate other criminals to help him on a really big con and luckily comes across Gandorff in the person of Bob Cryer, who brings the stage to life with the real presence which has been hitherto lacking (Though that name needs changing. I sat for ten minutes wondering if this was something to do with Lord of the Rings). They alight on the perfect mark, Lonnegan, a big time hood with fingers in pies all over, and played to perfection by John Chancer who crackles with machismo in his scenes with Bob Cryer’s Gandorff. And, I have to say, was very well dressed, as are the rest of the cast, by Hilary Lewis and Claudia Mayer.
They set up the scam and pull it off, with a nice twist at the end to let everyone go home happy. That’s it really. There are sound performances from others in the supporting cast. Peter Case proves wonderfully versatile in his various roles, including that of Lonnegan’s ‘enforcer’ Polk, and Kevin James as, amongst other roles, Snyder, is as downtrodden a ‘by-the-book’ man as you could ever wish to meet.
The other major star of this evening is the venue itself which has allegedly had some four million pounds spent on it. I presume they’ve been fixing the leaky roof and doing underpinning, as the rest of what’s on show could best be described as cleanly decrepit. Still, it has a certain charm, and hopefully when funds permit they’ll do a proper full restoration.
I can’t think I’ve ever mentioned the gents loo in a review before, but this one is secreted away upstairs and is one of the weirdest and most oddly laid out ‘comfort stops’ I think I’ve ever seen, with two extremely large sinks but only one cubicle to accompany the standing facilities.
I got held up on my journey (thank you TFL!) so arrived at the theatre just as the show was about to start and sat in one of the many empty seats at the back, which was fortunate, as I was able to see the number of couples in the audience who evidently consider this to be ‘their film’. As someone coming to the play having not seen the film I have to say it wasn’t mine.
Oh, and one last thing. Put a hook on the back of the cubicle door in the loos. It’s not nice to have to put your bag and coat on the floor of a gents toilet, even one which has just been renovated.