What a difference thirty minutes can make. I was happily watching a good solid Broadway classic in a good solid West End production with good solid performances. I was having a perfectly nice time as the episodic story unfolded with pace and skill and humour. I’ve never actually seen Gypsy on stage, but obviously know it inside out, up and down and backwards. But I was a little perplexed, for all its charms, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down. Dancing cows and squeaky kids and gags about egg-rolls with the odd moment of dramatic conflict. Was that really all there was to it? Well, of course not. It is a carefully crafted piece and when it does take a dark turn in the last thirty minutes, with Imelda Staunton at the heart of it, that turn is like a juggernaut veering across all six lanes on the motorway and taking all the other traffic with it. From the moment they enter the grim burlesque theatre and meet the three almost Dickensian, elderly strippers (imagine Miss Haversham living in Soho), the whole tone changes. When Rose spies a last desperate chance to grab a vicarious moment in the limelight by forcing her daughter Louise into the stripping business, family relations have got quite nasty indeed. Rose’s lover runs off to vomit in disgust, returning to tell her what a monster she is before walking out on her, while Louise also grabs at the moment and slaps on make-up in her own last ditch opportunity to escape her mother’s suffocating clasp. As Rose marches the girl to the stage to be ogled and objectified and jeered by the audience, the two women are set firmly on a path for mutual destruction. Much to my surprise, Louise’s transformation from terrified theatrical mouse to serpentine showbiz sensation is really rather disturbing, her mother’s offstage instructions are barked with the unsavoury tone of a madam in a cheap brothel and verge on cruelty. There are laughs in there (‘Dip! Dip!’), but it’s awful to watch Louise’s innocence being systematically stripped away in a very public deflowering at her mother’s behest. Like Dr Frankenstein and Henry Higgins before her, Rose is both vicious and foolishly self-destructive in her final confrontation with her creation. It’s an ugly spat, mother and daughter bitterly fighting for independence and recognition – and Lara Pulver as Louise proves a formidable opponent in the battle. And then there’s the end. It’s one of the most famous endings in Broadway history, how the hell do you make something new of it? I don’t know how, but Staunton just does. That’s where she’s a great actor, she simply inhabits the moment fully and takes us there with her. Of course, she’s spent the last two and half hours carefully preparing us for Rose’s Turn. At one point she just stops, an outrageously long pause mid-song and there’s utter silence in the theatre, and it’s the most eloquent moment in the production – we hold our breath with her as she finally realises the unhappy truth of what her whole life has been about. In that moment she’s every parent, every child. She’s every person who ever dreamed, every person who ever failed, every person who ever deluded themselves. It’s devastating. Tragic. Greek. “You’ve either got it, or you ain’t,” sings Rose. Staunton’s got it.

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