REVIEW: This Gypsy Rose Lee is just our cup of tea

Imelda Staunton and Kevin Whately. Credit: Johan Persson/ SUS-141022-092115003
Imelda Staunton and Kevin Whately. Credit: Johan Persson/ SUS-141022-092115003

A £22m transformation of Chichester’s Festival Theatre has been matched by the supreme quality of the shows staged there in its first renewed season.

And behind that success has been a succession of powerful women giving performances which have simply blown audiences away.

In the Minerva we have had Zoe Wanamaker giving a courageous portrayal of tormented poet Stevie Smith; while the elegantly clipped middle class consonants of Penelope Wilton exuded all the pent-up distress of a mother’s fight for her son in Nazi Germany in the harrowing Taken At Midnight.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, the incomparable Imelda Staunton has swept on to the stage of the main house as Momma Rose in Gypsy - the true story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

We last saw Miss Staunton at the CFT in 2011 in another classic Sondheim role as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

Many of that production cast return on this occasion - and produce something even more potent.

It’s the story of a mother who channels all her show business ambition into her two daughters - having been denied the opportunity of stardom herself.

The first half bounces along somewhat formulaically in the style of so many mid-20th century musicals.

But it is merely lulling the audience into a false sense of the predictable.

It provides the perfect contrast to the second half which bursts with emotion and magic reaching a crescendo which explodes through the auditorium and has virtually everyone leaping to their feet in a standing ovation.

Supported by the suitably inoffensive Kevin Whately as manager Herbie and the stunning Lara Pulver as Louise, this production will go on to even greater acclaim than Sweeney Todd.

As for Miss Staunton, she is simply mesmerising.

And she proves, if further proof were needed, that our theatre is buzzing at its brilliant best.