One of the most enthusiastic reviews for Show Boat, which is currently enthralling audiences at the New London Theatre, London, came from the Financial Times. In a glowing review by Sarah Hemming, this revival of the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein musical, was hailed as “masterly”.
Now, novelist Susie Boyt writing in the same paper, has declared the production not just unmissable, but something of a personal addiction. Having asked herself which of her routines she might stick to if she had only a year to live, Boyt reveals that she has become a regular member of the audience at the show (and that this is one pleasure she wouldn’t deny herself).
Says Boyt: “I have become something of a regular. It is a stunning production, full of beautifully crafted texture and history and musical-theatre history and lightheartedness and disappointment and despair. It has one of the best adult father-daughter reconciliation scenes this side of King Lear. It has several of my all-time favourite songs, including ‘Bill’, ‘Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly’ (a song that sometimes gets called ‘Fish Gotta Drink’ when I’m thirsty) and of course ‘Ol’ Man River’”.
“In this production some of the ensemble scenes are so movingly directed by Daniel Evans that they make you think of passages from the Bible. They make you think of the opening of Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts — ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters . . . ’ It has the best song ever written about men not quite liking to do housework. It has the best song ever written about the gap between the expectations of chorus girls and the reality, ‘Wild old men who give you jewels and sables/Only live in Aesop’s fables’ . . . Quite a lot of the performances are sublime too.”
Boyt explains how the tenderness in the show, which is supported by Bruno Wang Productions, is particularly striking – especially when at moments of suffering verging on humiliation: “What is it that makes suffering turn into humiliation?” she asks. “Is it when it is witnessed without compassion? Is it when it is witnessed with too much? Why do some people feel shame when things go wrong and turn on themselves, and why do others put their afflictions down to misfortune or bad timing? Also, how do you make it into the second category?
“In Show Boat, when the men come in from carrying mammoth bales of cotton … the women wipe their brows and the backs of their necks with rags in a quiet and deeply respectful way. It is a serious and heavy greeting during which the women subtly restore the men’s humanity by treating them for a moment like the heroes they are.”
In Hemming’s earlier review she too talks of the deft way the mixed company work together to tell this story of segregation and separation.
And the reviewer applauds the way period details underlines its exposition of racial prejudice; it revels, Hemming explains, in its exuberance, while also drawing out the sombre undertones.
According to the review, a trick of David Hersey’s lighting is to create a “shimmering Mississippi river”, where the black stevedores load bales of cotton and the showboat itself – Cotton Blossom, a water-borne theatre — glides in to dock.
“This is, above all, an ensemble staging and it comes into its own with the show’s two most famous numbers — an exuberantly choreographed (Alistair David) delivery of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ and a hauntingly moving version of ‘Ol’ Man River’. Emmanuel Kojo, leading the latter, begins barely audibly, before building to a spine-tingling climax. Magnificent.”