As its rather long title suggests, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd is a piece about inversion, exposing the dark side of theatrical archetypes and stock figures of the British class system.
This exceeding peculiar 1964 musical by co-composers, lyricists and librettists Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who also collaborated on the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), is reminiscent of a cross between Waiting For Godot, Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and Charles Dickens at his most grotesque. With its Victorian setting, it draws heavily on the British Music Hall tradition, combined with a sense of Continental absurdism, and also features a cameo from a professional body-builder (Tahir Ozkan) in his stage debut.
Greasepaint has never had a West End run – it transferred directly from its UK tour to Broadway, where it played 231 performances and starred Newley himself as the protagonist, Cocky. The idea of Broadway snapping it up seems remarkable, as it’s the opposite of a lovable crowd-pleaser, being a satirical allegory of the British class scale with a distinctly unsettling feel. Several of the songs, including ‘Feelin’ Good’ (immortalised by Nina Simone) and ‘Who Can I Turn To?’, have become standards that have surpassed the show’s own fame – perhaps unsurprisingly, as many of them feel like stand-alone numbers due to the rather loose integration between the book and music.
The somewhat repetitive plot (if it can be said to have one) involves the perpetually subservient everyman, Cocky (an appealingly shabby Matthew Ashforde) and his master, Sir (Oliver Beamish), who are engaged in ‘The Game’, a subverted version of hopscotch. Sir, a jovial tyrant who consciously models himself on Henry Higgins and manipulates the rules to serve his own interests, naturally gets many of the most stinging lines. Cocky’s own brief flirtation with power, becoming a king with a chamber pot crown, is an aptly grotesque spectacle, as if tyranny and power are always synonymous. More jarring is ‘The Negro’ (a gorgeous-voiced Terry Doe), uninhibited by Sir’s rules and skips right to the middle of the board, who is written as a caricature that surely would have been patronising before Gone with the Wind.
The tiny Finborough possibly boasts the most creative designs on the London Fringe, and Tim Goodchild’s effectively childlike aesthetic is no exception. The circus-like atmosphere is enhanced by a roulette board painted on the floor, surrounded by ladders and lit with fairy lights. The all-female ensemble, dressed as Pierrots with white faces, exaggerated black eyebrows and button noses, further heighten the sense of otherworldliness, providing wry commentary on the bizarre proceedings.
Almost 50 years after it was written, the Finborough’s Celebrating British Music Theatre series seems a far more fitting setting for Greasepaint than the West End or Broadway. Under Ian Judge’s nimble direction (his next engagement is Romeo et Juliett conducted by Plácido Domingo at Los Angeles Opera) this is an eccentric and disturbing curiosity that makes a refreshing antidote to West End glitz and gaudiness.