‘Momma Rose’ may never get her turn in the spotlight in Gypsy, but in Imelda Staunton’s hands, she’s indubitably the star here. Amid the stellar cast assembled by Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Jonathan Kent for his superb revival of this classic Broadway musical, Staunton still stands out – giving a powerhouse performance that bristles with single-minded determination, anger and sadness. She’s monstrous at times, but not a monster.
Based on the 1957 memoir of burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee, this show is widely touted as the best musical ever to hit Broadway. On the basis of this production, it would be hard to disagree. First off, not a word is wasted in Arthur Laurent’s beautifully economical book. And his vivid sketch of the dying days of American vaudeville melds seamlessly with Stephen Sondheim’s bitterly brilliant lyrics and Jule Styne’s evocative score.
Since debuting in 1959, Gypsy has arguable been responsible for setting the template for the ‘pushy stage mother’ archetype now fixed firmly in place. So, it’s fascinating how fresh the show still feels, when you get past the layers of reputation that have built up around it. Close up, Momma Rose’s obsession with turning her daughters June and Louise into stars – and the painfully sad outcome – amount to something richer and more nuanced than you might expect.
For starters – set in the 20s and 30s – it’s as much about an economically precarious America as anything, with the Great Depression looming. Momma Rose’s burning desire is not simply for fame, but for financial stability – to ensure that her children end up far from where she has come from. Here, this is beautifully mirrored by the exaggerated dimensions of designer Anthony Ward’s forced perspective set. You can almost feel the chafe as the family and their troupe of child performers cram themselves into tiny apartments.
And there’s a lot that feels familiar today: a burnt-out June’s eventual elopement in rebellion against her mother’s suffocating grip on her career could be the story of many recent child stars. And the way that her ‘replacement’, Louise, kick starts her burlesque career by seductively repeating the opening lines of Baby June’s sugar-sweet vaudeville act lives in the same queasy space as today’s beauty pageants.
But what keeps the show feeling emotionally relevant in this production is the way Staunton draws out not just Momma Rose’s ambition but also her love for her children. It’s damaged and blinkered – she trades the stability of marriage to long-suffering agent Weber (Kevin Whately) for their names in lights – but it is always there. Staunton brings warmth and humour to Rose in her rare moments of contentment, grounding the character in something more interesting than simple tyranny.
She’s a woman who can be hurt as deeply as she wounds, a force of nature who wouldn’t know how to stop, even if she wanted to. She brings every syllable of every lyric of every song bursting into life, with each performance telling its own complicated tale. At the end, her angry and heartbroken rendition of ‘Rose’s Turn’ broadens the song’s lament about opportunities sacrificed into one of parental despair that Louise doesn’t understand why she’s done what she has.
From perfectly pitched performances by the children playing Baby June and Baby Louise, to Julie Legrand, Anita Louise Combe and Louise Gold’s hilarious turn as a hard-bitten trio of striptease artists in the cheekily wonderful ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’, Staunton’s supported by a cast who make every character count. Kevin Whately takes a while to warm up – and his American accent wanders into Geordie – but he captures Weber’s exasperated love for Rose.
As adult June, a tremendous Gemma Sutton seethes resentment under a child’s wig. She and Lara Pulver (as grown-up Louise) have lovely chemistry as sisters struggling to escape the shadow of their mother. And Pulver confidently navigates her character’s transition from gangly teenager to sable-wearing burlesque star. Impeccably glamorous by the end, she brings out Louise’s quiet sadness at the cost.
Jonathan Kent’s fluid direction embraces Stephen Mear’s dazzling choreography while allowing the smaller character moments room to breathe. The show’s design shifts seamlessly between busy splashes of colour and spotlights in the darkness, while the full-piece band make the score sing loudly and proudly. It’s an exhilarating, heart-breaking and moving experience.