The week in theatre: West Side Story; Little Miss Sunshine; Ghost Stories – review

Who would have thought that Maria – as in “I feel pretty and witty” – might have a real sense of humour, not just a dimpling mischievousness. Or that Tony would sing Something’s Coming with a rough edge around his voice, as if he were finding romance after a rumble, before he slides into serenade. And what about Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a Jet and who is continually jeered at by the gang members she idolises because she doesn’t wear a skirt? An embarrassing period turn, a sidelined oddity? Not at the Royal Exchange. In a transforming moment it is Anybodys (nimble Emily Langham) who, perched high above the stage, begins to sing “There’s a place for us”. Gradually the rest of the cast join in. A love duet becomes a song for and about everyone.

It is not that Sarah Frankcom’s production remakes West Side Story, trying to wrench it into Moss Side Story. But it decisively adjusts its emphases for 2019, and to fit being seen in the round. For the first time, Leonard Bernstein’s musical arrangements and Jerome Robbins’s choreography have been reworked. The result is spare, immediate, unlush. Jason Carr’s orchestration is for 11 musicians. Aletta Collins’s choreography eschews big set pieces and mass finger clicking; the Puerto Rican high kicks are there but so is a slouchier, more low-slung, apparently casual street movement, sliding and skidding and balancing on a hand. Most vitally, the cast are never at rest. On the rare occasions when they seem to come to a halt – sitting on Anna Fleischle’s spillikins scaffold set, an abstract summary of New York – the music ticks in their flesh like a trapped muscle. Most of the time they are walking, weaving around each other so that the stage is a plait of movement. They walk themselves into dance.

Everyone’s story… Jocasta Almgill (Anita), Frances Dee (Francisca) and Natalie Chua (Consuelo) in West Side Story at the Royal Exchange. Photograph: Richard Davenport

Andy Coxon and Gabriela García give Tony and Maria real character as well as vocal fire: they are convincingly in love, not least because they don’t merely soupily gaze at each other but laugh together. As Riff, Michael Duke dances with supple bravado. And in what is always the most gorgeous and heart-wrenching part, Jocasta Almgill is a self-generating hurricane as Anita. Still the real cause for celebration is the way the entire stage is constantly lit up. This West Side Story insists that it’s about more than a couple’s romance. Echoes from today’s streets are abundant and evident: the knife fights are brutally swift. Others are also responding to these echoes. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are collaborating on a new movie of the show; Ivo van Hove is bringing a fresh version to Broadway. Frankcom has set the bar high.

Another musical slice of American life bowls brightly across the stage in Little Miss Sunshine. Memories of the 2006 movie on which Mehmet Ergen’s production is based (music and lyrics by William Finn and book by James Lapine) have clobbered this for some aficionados. But the ingredients are vivacious. David Woodhead’s design is yellow as a banana split. The falling-apart family who set off in a camper (apt adjective) van for a child’s beauty pageant include a grandfather who does drugs and talks sex, a Nietszche-reading teenager who won’t speak but communicates grudgingly with his family by writing on his mobile, and a gay Proust-specialist uncle who arrives with bandaged wrists after a romantic disappointment. Laura Pitt-Pulford, as the mother who long ago gave up independence and work to tend to a family who are now curdling rather than coalescing, has the most fetching voice, but is almost too appealing: not so much ground down as sweetly forlorn. Imelda Warren-Green puts in two high-grade comic cameos involving – separately – flamenco and funerals.

Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola.

Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It’s a piece full of diversions which doesn’t quite demand to be a musical. The songs in West Side Story are the very breath of its characters. The numbers here are revealing embellishments: pleasurable but not lingering.

Why doesn’t the theatre try more often to be frightening? After all, like giggles, gasps can be catching. The smallest sound can, in the hush of the stalls, seem like a personal physical assault. I have twice found a stranger’s hand in mine at The Woman in Black.

Nine years after its first appearance there, Ghost Stories has come back to haunt the Lyric Hammersmith. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s chiller has been seen in Lima and Shanghai, in Moscow and Toronto. It is more knowing than Susan Hill’s spooky tale; it is also less scary.

Simon Lipkin (Professor Goodman) in Ghost Stories.

Simon Lipkin (Professor Goodman) in Ghost Stories. Photograph: Chris Payne

Three tales – one involves a night watchman, another a banker with a baby, the third a boy and a dark wood – are wound round by a spoof lecture about the supernatural, in the course of which Simon Lipkin as the prof asks the audience who believes in ghosts (about half) and then who thinks they have seen one (less than a quarter).

There are a couple of touches of outright horror, several moments when – slight shiver – things move when they shouldn’t, and, most ingeniously of all because you simply don’t know whether you are imagining it, at one point a distinctive, unexpected smell. (That is another sense underexploited on the stage: how startling it was in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem to sniff the acrid whiff of burning in the stalls.)

If anything, Ghost Stories has become more elegant over the years. It trips its audience into thinking it knows better – and then makes dead meat (not a spoiler, that) of their knowingness. It is still, though, more playful than petrifying.

Star ratings (out of five)
West Side Story
Little Miss Sunshine
Ghost Stories

West Side Story is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 25 May

Little Miss Sunshine is at the Arcola, London, until 11 May

Ghost Stories is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 11 May

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