Review: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Church Hill Theatre

The assembled cast from A Funny Thing Happened
The assembled cast from A Funny Thing Happened
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The front row is entirely empty. The only person sitting in the second row has fallen asleep, and we’re only ten minutes into the performance. The signs aren’t good.

Meanwhile, onstage almost 30 people are attempting to recreate the spirit of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book about a manipulative slave (Pseudolus) trying to find a bride for his master (Hero) in exchange for his freedom. Apparently it’s a Roman comedy, but it’s more like a Greek tragedy.

One reason why producer Alan Borthwick may have wanted to adapt Shevelove and Gelbart’s blending of Plautus’ 2000-year-old (now considered stock) characters to the stage is because it’s ideal for any amateur theatre group delivering a seedy Roman farce.

Such routine types mean you don’t have to be a superbly great actor to depict the dominatrix (Domina), the sleaze (Hysterium), the bumbling idiot (Erronius), the authoritative megalomaniac (Miles Glorious) and, of course, one of the many voluptuous beauties (the Courtesans) on show, either.

So what’s the problem here? Stephen Sondheim’s songs for one thing. Good as they are, they literally slow down what is already a 140-minute show.

Naturally, you can’t expect perfect casting when portraying a large group of characters, either. Still, it doesn’t explain why the best actors – Fiona Main (Domina) and Ian Lawson (Lycus) – are so underused (regardless of what the original script states). There are some genuinely hilarious one-liners in A Funny Thing Happened and, despite fumbling some of his lines, Maxwell Smart’s Erronius gets the most laughs.

That said, the rickety stage set always looked as if it was about to fall like an autumn leaf from a Morningside Road tree. And to say some of the women playing the Courtesans looked slightly uncomfortable during their individual dance routines is somewhat of an unsexy understatement. Sorry, ladies.

So, OK, some amateur productions work less well than others. Nevertheless, by cutting some songs, giving the better actors more stage time, and with a larger audience to feed off, a Nawtoo Greatus production will be a Helluva Lotta Bettera.