The Hudsucker Proxy began life as a film, written and directed by the Coen Brothers (of The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou fame). It wasn’t a great box-office hit when it was released in 1994, and while the movie has since acquired a cult following this terrific stage version is a revelation – as good as, if not better than the original. It also represents something of a coup for the Playhouse and their co-producers Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre as the first Coen Brothers film to be adapted for the stage.
The Hudsucker Proxy is set in 1958. Its portrayal of the New York business environment of that era will appeal to anyone who’s missing Mad Men, though the greedy, Machiavellian corporate culture we encounter in the play is of course still very much with us. The tale begins with the board of a large American company concocting a money-making scheme which involves engineering a collapse in their own share price by appointing a naïve simpleton (mailroom underling Norville Barnes) as president. However their plans go awry when Norville confounds their expectations by inventing the hula hoop.
The original film was conceived as a tribute to the Hollywood screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties, and co-directors Simon Dormandy (who also wrote the script) and Tony Sedgwick infuse their stage production with a similar zany, escapist spirit. The humour’s inventive, wacky and energetic, and exuberantly delivered by an outstanding, enthusiastic cast. Dormandy takes a role himself, and exudes swaggering menace in a performance of great authority as a malevolent, cigar-smoking business mogul. Joseph Timms’s Norville has an engaging innocence but also warms the audience’s hearts as he shows there’s more to our hero than first meets the eye, and handles well the change in the character as success brings out his darker side. Sinead Matthews, resembling a pint-sized Katherine Hepburn, is wonderfully entertaining as a shrewd, fast-talking investigative reporter whose interest in Norville becomes more than just professional. There’s another memorable performance from David Webber, who’s mesmerising as Moses, the company’s mysteriously wise and all-seeing maintenance man.
The play is a consistent visual delight. As well as some excellent physical comedy, designer Dick Bird’s colourful, imaginative sets, which take us into the clock tower of a New York skyscraper and out onto the Manhattan streets, are superb.
As is often the case at the Playhouse, the theatre does a great job of getting everyone in the mood before the play begins: there are young women demonstrating hula hoop moves on the pavement outside, while inside Fifties records are playing and bellhops with strong American accents welcome the audience as they arrive.
It all adds up to an unforgettableable evening, with the play packing an incredible amount of clever dialogue, dynamic action and intriguing plot twists into its two and a bit hours. This version of The Hudsucker Proxy has all the ingredients of a modern classic and it’s easy to imagine it entertaining audiences for years to come.
Photos: Clare Park. The Hudsucker Proxy continues at the Playhouse, Liverpool until Saturday 27 June. For more information, click HERE.