Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Theatre Royal, Sydney

Has a musical ever been so necessary in Sydney as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? A palate cleanser after several loud and ultimately disappointing ventures in musical theatre have come to town, this production gets everything right.

Tucked into the Theatre Royal, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opened last night with many, many bouts of laughter. Based on the 1988 movie of the same name, a cheerful romp through the hi-jinks of career con-artists, it’s the story of old-school grafter Lawrence Jameson (Tony Sheldon) and maverick upstart Freddy Benson (Matt Hetherington). They find a mark, make a bet to swindle her, and from there it’s the most wonderfully blithe journey into deception, flirtation, fake-outs and fake accents.

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.
Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.

David Yazbeck’s score is brought to a lively forefront by musical director Guy Simpson; the music pays tribute to Golden Age musicals with a careless savoir-faire, and the ensemble’s movement and vocals help create a confection of musical numbers that are frothy and fun and dynamic.

For a show that focuses a lot on the male duo in the centre of the plot, the three women in this production are the ones that cause the most memorable single moments. Katrina Retallick has the hit number of the night with a song that is a direct wink and nudge to the Golden Age; as Jolene Oaks, she sings “Oklahoma?” (yes, about the state) and it’s delicious. Retallick is one of our most versatile and reliable stage performers, and she soars in this role.

Anne Wood, as Xanax-taking Muriel, brings a fiendishly dry delivery to “What Was a Woman to Do”, and, indeed, the rest of her performance: director Roger Hodgman has tapped into Wood’s sense of timing, and, in her balcony scenes, and in her scenes with Andre Thibault (John Wood) she is hilarious.

Amy Lehpamer. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.
Amy Lehpamer. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.

Amy Lehpamer as ‘soap queen’ Christine Colgate, Freddy and Lawrence’s chosen target, has such a sublime tone that seems, impossibly, both modern and classic. She fits perfectly into this screwball show and manages to complement both Tony Sheldon’s dynastic polish and Hetherington’s more reckless charm.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, though, is the playground for Sheldon and Hetherington, and they consistently, and reliably, anchor the show with their stellar performances. Sheldon, a Tony nominee, has been missed on Australian stages, and his performance is delightfully unexpected; he has a way of twirling his proverbial villain’s mustache with nuance and grace. Hetherington brings that recklessness into his excitingly careening vocals and his rakish, enthusiastic character, and together they are a well-balanced, well-oiled machine. The banter and joking patter, both clever and crass (and a good mix of each) land with a great deal of audience (and probably actor) satisfaction; it’s clear how much the performers are relishing their roles.

With sleek choreography (by Dana Jolly) and a fantastic sense of internal pacing, the show moves at a brisk clip but will let you linger over a strong top-note or a particularly clever joke. Hetherington started the night with high-energy and maintained that impressive standard throughout the show, like the world’s longest sprint. Sheldon, however, who is onstage for almost the entire show, paced himself like it was the most enjoyable, elegant marathon to be run in the world, savouring every step.

The set design by Michael Hankin understands the space of the Royal, which is critical, playing on both space and shape to create staging that feels both expansive and audience inclusive, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting is well-executed – and a recurring punchline (the fourth wall breaking in this show is endlessly enjoyable). The production values are understated but very clever; by portraying the suggestion of wealth rather than trying to set out an abundant visual of same, the design stays firmly classy. It’s a direct contrast from recent productions that look a little too cheap in their over-reaching, and proves just how well thought-out this production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels truly is.

Anne Wood and John Wood. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.
Anne Wood and John Wood. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.

It was a pleasure to watch this show. Bright, fun and full of laughs, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is everything we needed. This show is a reason to leave the house and go to the theatre. This show is the reason why people go back to the theatre.

At last night’s opening night of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a joyful audience leaped to its feet in a standing ovation almost before the curtain call had begun. It was a sincere and spontaneous show of support and thanks for the actors. Go and see it. It will make you happy.

Tickets Available Now: Ticketmaster.com.au

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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