The performance begins as soon as you enter the newly refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall. The building’s interior has been transformed into a 1930s speakeasy, with jazz singers, card games and comedy tricks taking place in its various rooms, elevating the idea of a pre-show to a new level. The programme has been designed as the newspaper-style ‘Wilton’s Tribune’, there’s cabaret-style seating for those inclined, and several audience members have come clad in flapper dresses, feathers and suits.
Director Peter Joucla – who brought The Great Gatsby to the same venue back in 2012 – is big on detail. This extends to the production. Adapted by Joucla from the 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, it’s a production of cinematic flair: the short scenes are sharply paced; the scene changes are slick and jazz pianist Ashley Henry underscores the action with live ragtime soundtrack; Nina Kristofferson’s singer Mrs Vanderkieft narrates the action with a cold, noir sensibility, and the costume design, by Hilary Lewis, is also wonderfully realised.
Trouble is this all feels like mere dressing to an underwhelming story. Set in Chicago 1936, The Sting concerns the exploits of conman Hooker (Ross Forder), a charming womaniser whose sharp suit lies in a pawn shop. After conning an unsuspecting victim and buying back his suit, he teams up with Gondorff (Bob Cryer), an expert in the field, who assists in laying a trap for local crime boss Lonnegan (John Chancer). That first victim turns out to be part of Lonnegan’s crime ring, luring Hooker into a sleazy world of double crossing, murder and gambling. It’s a complex narrative not helped by the fact that most of the characters lack distinct personalities and feel like a long line of men in hats and suits (not helped by some cast members playing multiple characters). The characters are never more than stock types: the handsome lead, the comedy old-timer, the duped and angry mob leader, the ditzy burlesque dancer. No one stands out and, crucially, we never get a sense of Hooker’s reasoning and purpose – though he’s the protagonist, there’s very little to him.
Part of this distance is down to the venue. The audience is set back some distance from the stage, whilst the high ceiling sucks the sound and atmosphere out of the production. The echoing acoustics don’t really fit the nature of the production and it also feels insufficiently lit.
The Sting is at its best and most enjoyable in its small details and its flashes of comedy, even if it only really comes alive in the second act when the titular sting actually takes place. At times though it feels like we’re watching the whole production through a sepia filter.