Just last week theatre critic Lyn Gardner's column was cut from the Guardian website, one of many examples of cuts to arts funding from all sides in a time of political uncertainty, when really we need the arts more than ever. The Frogs, then, couldn't come at a more timely moment.
Based on a 405 BC comedy from Aristophanes freely adapted by Burt Shevelove and "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane with music from Stephen Sondheim, it's a musical that truly celebrates the arts and receives its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Set simultaneously in modern day and ancient Greece (yes that's correct), the narrative follows the god of drama and wine Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) as they travel through the underworld to bring George Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson) back from the dead. Why? Because humanity will find solace in drama, saving the modern world from political strife (this modern version was written following the events of 9/11).
It's a singular political message that cleverly mirrors Aristophanes' work while updating it for a contemporary audience, filled with witty references to politics, musicals and culture. Each scene on the journey is a vignette that takes us deeper into the underworld, from a burly Herakles (Chris McGuigan), travelling aboard Charon's boat (Jonathan Wadey, having a lot of fun with the Johnny Depp meets Beetlejuice characterisation), a chorus of frightening frogs, through to a dominatrix Pluto (Emma Ralston). The show's climax is a wonderfully acted battle of words between Shaw and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) to determine which playwright is most worthy to return to Earth. The theme of artists connecting across life and death adds a meta layer to the show that reflects the collaborative efforts of the writers and composer.
This may not be Sondheim's most original score, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. There are plenty of Sondheim-isms, from the wordy melodies (which the cast occasionally stumbled on) to the contrapuntal textures. There's more than a touch of Into the Woods here, while the frog chorus is suitably frightening and contrasts with some lush chorale singing.
Gregor Donnelly's set and costume design keeps things simple and modern with a few nods to Ancient Greece and director/producer Grace Wessels ensures this is a stylish and mostly polished production in the confines of the small theatre. It's certainly deserving of a larger space to fully-realise the imaginative scenes.
It's bookended, however, with scenes that directly address the audience. They may reflect Aristophanes and they may be entertaining, but they're also a little patronising and unnecessarily implore the message of the musical. It's important to ensure that art doesn't exist within a bubble, but The Frogs is essentially artists patting the backs of artists and it comes off as a little self-aggrandising. Yet with its layers of morality, philosophy and wit, it remains a deliciously intellectual production.
"Smile on us and bless our show", the cast sing to the audience in the opening number. Well I smiled plenty, so - for what it's worth - consider yourselves blessed.
Watch: The Frogs runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8th April.
Photos: David Ovendon