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Review: The Frogs, at Jermyn Street Theatre

23 March, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

George Rae and Michael Matus in The Frogs. Photo: David Ovenden

THIS Stephen Sondheim musical is based on a satirical comedy written by Aristophanes in 405 BC. It sends Dionysos, Greek god of theatre (and wine), down to the Underworld to resurrect a dead writer to guide society and improve theatre.

The frogs feature in one scene only, as Charon rows Dionysus to Hades, but their croaked refrain Brekekekèx-koàx-koáx was the fan’s chant at Yale University matches. Perhaps that’s why in 1941 Bert Shovelove staged his adaptation in the university pool with the swimming team circling. In 1974 he did it again, this time with Sondheim’s songs (and Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the chorus). That adaptation was followed by an even freer one by Nathan Lane with more songs; its tone set from the start with the announcement that “The Time is the Present. The Place Ancient Greece.” It is revived here without any water but a chorus giving lively support in its choreographed numbers.

Like the ancient original, it’s intended as topical comment but its jokes are less crude than Aristophanes’, though after turning of phones audiences are asked “Please don’t fart. There’s very little air and this is art.” Instead of an ancient writer Dionysus thinks Bernard Shaw is the dramatist able to offer sense to today’s world, but Shakespeare is there too, his rival in a comic competition slinging quotes from their plays at each other.

Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) make a lively duo. They go for advice to strongman Herakles (strongly played by Chris McGuigan) who’s already visited Hades He lends Dionysus his kit so camp god can pass himself off as butch hero. This takes in boatman Charon and his brother Aekos (both weirdies played by Jonathan Wadey) but not Li-Tong Hsu’ s Virilla the Amazon or Emma Ralston’s dominatrix Pluto. They also encounter Dionysos dead lover Ariadne (Bernadetter Bangura) with Martin Dickinson a Shaw with no trace of beard or Irish accent and Nigel Pilkington a Shakespeare who delivers his own lines with style.

Among the light-hearted banter there is more serious stuff about art’s role in society but this is a slight piece of entertainment. Its main appeal will be as a Sondheim rarity.

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