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Sweet Smell of Success

Leveson wouldn't know where to start with this one…


Fame, fortune and fabulousness– what every diva dreams of achieving while still young and beautiful enough to look stunning on the front cover of magazines all across the world.

But in 1950s New York nobody is a somebody unless they’re in the column. That’s JJ’s column. JJ Hunsecker.
His daily gossip column is syndicated to more than 60 million Americans every day, and everybody wants a part of it – and to be a part of it.

The low-down on the street is that JJ stands for ‘Jugular Jugular’ giving an idea of JJ’s cut-throat approach to the aspiring dreamers of the Big Apple’s partying elite that has made his gossip column the success it is. “Integrity? What is this word?” he declares. The audience is left to itself to judge just how ironic he intends this statement to be.

Set during the birth of the modern celebrity culture as we now know it, when glamour and a good name were intrinsic to the success of a star, the rise of gossip as a newsworthy item halted for no one. (Well, the War was over by this point, what else is there to write about?) Doing the public a service, JJ’s column leaves no smutty stone left unturned.

This dark musical delves headfirst into the dastardly deeds behind the headlines and the unfortunate twist of events when career-hungry press agent Sidney Falcone and JJ’s own beloved sister become entangled.

Deceit, deception and dangerous liaisons abound as JJ is played at his own game by the wet behind the ears Falcone, keeping the audience guessing right up until the final curtain falls as to who will come out on top in the back-handed dealings of 1950s column inches.

For a musical set at the very epicentre of popular celeb-dom in New York, this production itself is to be found well off the beaten track of West-End theatre land, with not so much as a twinkling light bulb in sight in London’s East End.

But that is where this production – reliant on the fast-paced, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere – really works. The sweltering atmosphere of JJ’s newsroom and seedy nightlife could possibly be lost in a gaping auditorium with chintzy seats and modern air conditioning. This is perhaps why when the musical debuted ten years ago on Broadway that something was amiss and it disappeared into obscurity – not unlike its 1957 silver screen predecessor.

The Arcola theatre dutifully lends itself to the production, providing a more raw and intimate location, while the big-stage experience still plays out with show numbers and choreography worthy of the most famous of West End boards.

Starring David Bamber as JJ (The Paradise, Pride and Prejudice) as a deliciously ruthless JJ and Adrian der Gregorian as the in-over-his-head Sidney, their battle for reader dominance and the latest scoop will resonate particularly with a 21st century audience who feast on Gossip Girl and heat magazine.

Just don’t expect this gossip peddler to sign off “xoxo”.

4/5

Until 22 December, Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London. Tickets and info here.

Words: Stephen Davy-Osborne
Photographer: Simon Annand

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