A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: As good as it can be

Geoffrey Rush and Gerry Connolly. Image by Jeff Busby

After the degustation of emotion, politics and confrontation of the Melbourne Festival, what better than a mouthful of fluffy sugar and an almighty fart? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has no pretensions about being serious art.

First performed on Broadway 1962, it’s ancient Rome, where slaves were whipped, women were bought and political correctness meant wearing the right toga to the senate. Giving a finger to the romantic gentility of musical theatre at the time and celebrating the ancient-Greek influences on vaudeville, there are tit, eunuch and fart jokes galore, as it asks the timeless dramatic question, “Who gets to de-virgin the teenager: the virgin boy, his dad or the stranger who bought her from her pimp?”.

I’ve really tried to like this show.

It was Stephen Sondheim’s first score (music and lyrics; his previous work was the lyrics for West Side Story) and the book was co-written with Larry Gelbart (the dude who wrote the best episodes of MASH). If you’re expecting dark and biting satire with music that stains your soul, remember that it takes time to hit your stride as an artist. Musically it’s forgettable, but hints at the glories that followed, and book-wise there’s jokes and structure without a hint of depth or complexity. It’s a simplified world where men are manly or limp, and women are lovely and stupid, vejazzled and bendy, or old and sexless.

So why do it? It’s as satisfying as a bucket of fairy floss.

Geoffrey Rush wanting to play Pseudolus the scheming slave is the lines-at-the-box-office answer. It’s an old-school, star-led romp – and who can resist a romp with our-Geoffrey in a toga? Looking like he’s having more fun than he dreamed of, this is Geoffrey’s fart-in-the-general-direction to anyone who forgets that it’s meant to be fun.

Mitchell Butel, Shane Bourne and Magda Szubanski. Image by Jeff Busby

And throw in the commercial-dream cast of telly and theatre must-sees who have earned their first-name recognition because they are all damn good and totally watchable.  There’s Shane Bourne, Magda Szubanski and Gerry Connolly for the oldies; Hugh Sheridan for the youngies;  Mitchell Butell, Christie Whelan-Browne and Adam Murphy for the theatries; and Bob Honery for everyone (Bob was in the original Australian production in 1964).

It may be the best that a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum can be.

Director Simon Phillips turns the serious to 0 and the giggle-and-hoot to 11. And Gabriella Tylesova’s design of cardboardy houses and tassled-togas is as witty as any of the jokes. Like her design for Love Never Dies, it’s an eye-orgasm to look at with detail that creates the world and the characters in an instant.

It’s a show where the cast are applauded before they open their mouths, corpsing is compulsory and anyone daring to question its politics or guts will be scoffed at.

Production Images by Jeff Busby.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

2 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: As good as it can be

  • Excellent review Jeff. I too really tried to like it as a show… but was left a bit ho hum. Ultimately it was all about the cast, not the show itself. Rush was solid (as you would expect from a guy who has won every award in the universe). I thought Sheridan was great. When Bourne stood side by side with Rush, clearly Bourne had more X, but not the craft of Rush. Magda looked pissed off all night, and the rest were fine.

    How to fix it? Perhaps free up the cast to do some genuine improv, rather than just ‘staged’ improv to lift it. Maybe use the well worn trick of using current events in comedic references in order to give the script some energy…
    Oh, and good on you for not mentioning boobs once in your article!

    • Sorry… I meant to say Excellent review Anne-Marie…


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