Show Boat, New London Theatre, review: ‘All aboard for lush revival’

The cast of Show Boat. Picture: Johan Persson

The cast of Show Boat. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Racial politics, addiction, violence and economic hardship.

The subject matter of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical, based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, shocked on its 1927 premiere, as did its integrated story and score and revolutionary dramatic heft.

Daniel Evans’s fleet Sheffield Crucible production wisely uses a filleted version, and Alistair David’s vibrant, eloquent choreography helps bridge multiple decades, locations and some erratic plotting.

We begin in segregated 1880s Mississippi, where black workers heave bales of cotton under the lash of white overseers.

Though the travelling performers of the eponymous show boat peddle escapism, they’re directly affected when star Julie is revealed as mixed-race.


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Evans superbly balances the showbiz glamour and lurking darkness.

Even Lez Brotherston’s boat goes from bright lights and majestic Americana to grimy, rundown vessel.

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Its three tiers demonstrate someone is always watching, whether in admiration, communion or censure, and provide a Juliet balcony for the swooning lovers.

Gina Beck’s loyal, idealistic Magnolia hangs onto her dignity through a testing marriage to feckless gambler Gaylord.

Her luscious lyric soprano is beautifully matched by charming Chris Peluso’s sonorous tone in a deeply felt romance. Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie breaks hearts with two haunting paeans to inexorable love – wry, bluesy, rapturous, shattering.

There are several superb double acts: Malcolm Sinclair’s twinkling Andy and Lucy Briers’s scathing Parthy; Danny Collins’s eager Frank and Alex Young’s droll Ellie; and Sandra Marvin’s imperious Queenie and Emmanuel Kojo’s Joe, who delivers the accusatory “Ol’ Man River” with spine-tingling fervour.

That river rolls on through a changing world, as we witness the difficult birth of modernity.

It’s a universal tale and a sweeping epic, but this lush revival makes each moment of love, loss, yearning and redemption disarmingly intimate. All aboard!

Show Boat is at the New London Theatre.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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