A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!




UK Premiere


Arcola Theatre presents



David Bamber as JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success at Arcola Theatre

Photo by Simon Annand


Sweet Smell of Success

Starring Olivier Award winner David Bamber

Based on the novella by Ernest Lehman and the 1957 MGM/United Artists film with a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman

Music Marvin Hamlisch

Lyrics Craig Carnelia

Book John Guare

Director Mehmet Ergen

Musical Director Bob Broad

Choreography Nathan M. Wright


Arcola Theatre


9 November – 22 December 2012



 ‘Jugular-jugular’ - JJ Hunsecker- has a column, a big newspaper column. Its shadow spreads far and wide across the States of America but the bite is felt most in the big apple. This is a world that would peddle itself to turn a profit, while the guys who can make or break reputations - the press agents, hustle for a scoop as pigs to a trough. Sidney Falcone, a one-track-one-client hustler, sells his soul and shortens his odds, as JJ shows him the ‘night-time.’ Yet everything, as Sidney finds out, has its price.

Nominated for seven Tonys, including Best Musical in 2002, Sweet Smell of Success is a melting pot of Manhattenese from Damon Runyon, Gershwin, 42nd Street, Bernstein and Sondheim to the waterfront. Big guns blaze: Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) composed the music, John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) wrote the book, and Craig Carnelia (Imaginary Friends) penned the lyrics, so the surprise is why is it only now receiving its British professional premiere? It died ‘a slow death’ when it opened in America in 2002, with John Lithgow as the monstrous JJ and direction by Nicholas Hytner.

Yet Hamlisch’s music just fizzes with jazz-riffs, crafty piano improvisations, horns and the unmistakable drum-scat which suggests the city’s underbelly. ‘I Cannot Hear the City’ (Stuart Matthew Price), ‘Another Fountain’ (Adrian der Gregorian), ‘Don’t Know Where You Leave Off (Stuart Matthew Price and Caroline Keiff) and the solo number for Rita, Sidney’s hapless girlfriend, ‘Rita’s Tune’ (Celia Graham), lift the roof, while the ensemble numbers grow from a chorus lineinto their Greek counterpart as moods shift from a-tonal to film noir. 

There is a whiff of NY savvy throughout which matches Hamlisch’s musical smorgasbord: ‘Hey, Esther Williams, Try Swimming up the Niagara Falls’ or ‘Pour the Syrup on the Waffle,’ and the lyrics are sharp - ‘give him dirt, make it hurt.’ The ensemble cast is top-notch in the sharp-shooting choreographed numbers (Nathan M. Wright) particularly in ‘Streets,’ and their singing and Tom Kelly’s orchestration first-rate. Indeed the quality of the singing throughout is excellent.

The design by Mark Bailey, simply executed through Manhattan skyline and neon-style, with café tables and chrome-set bars, hints at a subterranean world. Even the severe audience rake of the newly refurbished Arcola Theatre suggests a metaphorical descent into hell. The costumes are gum-shoe trench coats and fashionable full-skirted 50s’ dresses which complement the vibrant celebrity world of Marilyn Monroe and Joe De Maggio in the Stork Club, and the contrasting grey of the shady, uncertain world of J Edgar Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy.

David Bamber is an effective, understated JJ. He looks like a bank manager, yet this gives his obsessive, sinister persona a rootedness, and when he needs it, a steely edge. ‘Integrity’ asks JJ, ‘what’s that?’ This could be a strap line at the core of the whole piece, and post-Leveson, sadly apt. Yet director Mehmet Ergen’s production is a great night out, even if occasionally, it loses momentum between scenes. It has great music, and searing story-line and sub-plot, with a strange bitter-sweet quality that remains long after the final curtain call...



The Company of Sweet Smell of Success at Arcola Theatre

Photo by Simon Annand


Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, Dalston
London E8 3DL
7.30 Saturday, matinees 2.30
Tickets: Evenings £25, (£18 concs.)
Matinees: £22 (£25. concs.)
Limited seats available as Pay What You Can on Tuesdays from 6:30pm in person at Arcola Theatre

November – all tickets £18.
Box Office 020 7503 1646
Nearest Trains: Dalston Junction/Dalston Kingsland

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