What's interesting about the plot of Gypsy is its subversion of expectations. Based on the 1957 memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (with book from Arthur Laurents and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim), the musical focuses on her mother Rose as she struggles to bring up her two daughters alone and is determined to make them stars. In their childish vaudeville act, the squeaky June is pushed to centre stage whilst the shy Louise merely provides support. Yet rather than following the rise to fame of June or, later, Louise, Rose is the real star of the show.
She is the ultimate pushy parent: brassy, bossy and with steely determination. She has the gift of the gab, worming her way into auditions to get every possible opportunity for her daughters - or is it for herself and her sense of self-worth? A monster she may be, but as the protagonist of the show she must simultaneously be sympathetic. By the end, she has become a tragic figure - her desperation laughable, her dreams crazed.
Such a fiery, complex character requires a skilled actress. It doesn't get much better than Imelda Staunton. Her performance is exceptional, capably balancing the extremes of the character, whilst delivering a strong vocal, brilliant comic timing and surprising sex appeal. The show's finale, "Rose's Turn", makes for a hugely dramatic climax as Staunton's emotionally charged performance sees the character shatter and break before our eyes. She is simply outstanding.
Staunton leads an incredibly strong cast. Lara Pulver naturally evolves from the awkward and introverted Louise into the seductive Gypsy Rose Lee with a touch of Eva Green about her, whilst Gemma Sutton is a bold June despite the character quickly falling by the wayside. The rest of the ensemble are brilliantly polished, whilst the accompanying orchestra play superbly.
That polish can be said of the musical as a whole. It may not bring any novel ideas to the West End, but this is simply an old fashioned musical performed to a wonderfully high standard. Every element of the show is excellent, from the memorable tunes, to the grand and lucid design, and the entertaining choreography. Yet mostly, Gypsy excels with its narrative and characterisation: the thematically rich mother-daughter plot and the subtle criticism of show business that remains relevant today. Staunton's powerhouse performance is a joy to watch yet equally haunting, ensuring this production really is a must-see.
Watch: Gypsy runs at the Savoy Theatre until May.
For more reviews of Gypsy, check out this round-up from Official Theatre.