chicago review

Review: Chicago, New Wimbledon Theatre

Review: Chicago, New Wimbledon Theatre

Jenny Booth reviews: “It’s a high octane show that threatens – and delivers.”


Can a musical be both the sexiest show on earth and at the same time a savage satire? We have perhaps got used to thinking of Chicago mainly as the former – a view that has been helped along by the string of famous names over the years from Denise van Outen to David Hasselhoff who have acquired some dark-edged glamour in the roles of sassy murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, and cynical lawyer Billy Flynn. The touring production of Chicago now at New Wimbledon Theatre is an interesting reminder that the show is not just an enjoyable star vehicle with some iconic numbers (‘All That Jazz’, ‘Razzle Dazzle’). Those sexy, knowing, ironic, Bob Fosse-inspired routines are also meant to stir some moral outrage, making us see through the show’s empty and unprincipled lead characters and the society that glamourises them. The original play on which Chicago is based was written in 1926 by a female journalist as an infuriated blast at the amoral, dissolute Prohibition era, and was based on true stories of women on remand for murder who became objects of media fascination, and were acquitted because they were pretty.

The show’s producers have plonked the orchestra in full view, in a gilded box that fills most of the stage – a decision which makes it clear that the worlds of criminal justice and showbiz have definitively overlapped. To ram home the point, the stage is surrounded by a tarnished golden frame, and actors wait in chairs beside the box when they are not performing. In other words, the whole Cook Country Prison has become a vaudeville rehearsal room (ironically, the only time when the band is not visible is when Kelly and Hart are genuinely performing a vaudeville act in the Act 2 finale in front of a sparkly curtain). At first it felt odd that on one of the biggest stages in London the action was being confined to a strip at the front; but before long the characters are mounting the walls on tall circus ladders, and bursting through the centre of the orchestra box in a flutter of ostrich feather fans, as the irrepressible lawbreakers squabble, plot, and rehearse their acts for their appearance in court.

The stripped-back set throws the focus on individual performances. Vocally, Russell Watson stands out as Billy Flynn, his mellifluous, classically-trained tenor easily adapting to the smoochy, sleazy Chicago style. Sheila Ferguson (musical royalty, as lead singer of The Three Degrees) has a husky, seen-it-all-before languor as ‘Mama’ Morton. As Velma, Djalenga Scott is brilliant at interpreting the sharp, minimalist choreography, always seeming to have all the time in the world as she scissors her endless legs and delivers a broad wink to the audience a fraction ahead of the beat. There is excellent character work from Faye Brooks (Kate Connor in Corrie) as the shallow and scheming Roxie, particularly in the second act as fame goes to her head; and Jamie Baughan is outstanding as Amos, investing his “Mr Cellophane” number with mournful passive aggression. The ensemble are fantastic, particularly in the climactic courtroom room scene in Act 2 where the menacing, stylised quality of their movement reaches a peak. It’s a high octane show that threatens – and delivers.

New Wimbledon Theatre, until 21 May

Image: Djalenga Scott ‘Velma Kelly’ and The Company. Credit: Tristram Kenton