‘Oklahoma!’ review – Cluttered revival of a country classic


Daniel Fish’s staging of Rodger and Hammerstein’s country classic puts the ‘OK’ in Oklahoma! If Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s wooden set design were a blank canvas, then Fish’s artistic vision is to simply throw a bunch of different theatrical techniques at it and see what sticks. It’s messy, and that’s before the production dives into a far sexier and raunchier version of the source material.

Fresh from its first London run at the Young Vic last year, this revival bombards you with bizarre projections, tedious interpretive dance, mumbled dialogue in total darkness, and colourful mood lighting which conveys next to nothing about how the characters are feeling. Choosing to light up co-lead character Laurey Williams (Anoushka Lucas of Elephant) in green, during a love story where it is the male characters fighting over the female characters, is just nonsensical and illogical.

Opening up the second act with a ballet dancer moving over an electric guitar riff in thick haze, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered off into another theatre during your loo break. Rather than attempt an intelligent merging of the modern with its original historic setting, it decides to be utterly incoherent and superfluous. The decision to leave the text unchanged is commendable, but it makes for a first act which could have been at least 15 minutes shorter if it wanted to end on a more suspenseful cliffhanger, rather than a quieter musical number from Lucas.

Even its transfer from the Young Vic to the Wyndham’s isn’t as smooth as it could have been. I imagine the highly sexual revival was more of a hit in the small and intimate Waterloo venue, where actors performed in more of an ‘in-the-round’ type set-up, compared to the West End, where the company have their backs to the audience at multiple points in the show, struggle to project to the whole auditorium and fondle and liberally throw alcohol over the front row (seriously, don’t sit there if you can help it, and so outrageous are the antics there should really be a warning when you buy tickets).

When so much of this staging is anarchic and absurd, having Arthur Darvill (Doctor Who, Rare Earth Mettle, The Antipodes) performing a suave, smirking Curly McLain and Lucas nailing a confident Laurey feels incredibly out-of-place. In contrast, James Patrick Davis delivers a standout performance as Will Parker, because his dogged pursuit of $50 cash to woo love interest Ado Annie (the incredible Georgina Onuorah) is so hilarious and ridiculous it’s in keeping with Fish’s slapdash direction.

Credit too must be given to musical director Huw Evans, who playfully conducts the orchestra through the numbers and their rapidly changing tempos and styles in a way which is genuinely thrilling and exciting to watch. The music is loud and riotous under his leadership (“Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” doesn’t disappoint), but unfortunately for the other director involved, being outlandish with theatrical techniques doesn’t guarantee a daring or creative show. So much of it struck me as padding for what is essentially a bog standard love triangle drama, something which only became apparent to me near the end of the first act, once musical numbers and copious gyrating is over and done with.

It isn’t creative freedom, but rather a certain carelessness, and I’m left with a far from beautiful feeling that the direction in Oklahoma! isn’t going the right way at all.

Oklahoma! is now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 2 September.

Audio described, captioned and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances are scheduled to take place on 3 June, 27 June and 5 August.

Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Oklahoma!’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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