Lysistrata Jones was performed by MA Musical Theatre students from the Guildford School of Acting at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford.
Following its success both Off and on Broadway in 2011-12, Lysistrata Jones received its European premiere courtesy of Guildford School of Acting, the Ivy Arts Centre being transformed into a basketball court for the purpose. The eponymous heroine is a university transfer student who becomes frustrated with the basketball team’s three decade-long losing streak until bookish female student Robin introduces her to Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Inspired by her Ancient Greek namesake, she and her fellow cheerleaders – the girlfriends of the jocks in question – agree to initiate a ‘sex jihad’ against their beaus until they win a game.
Douglas Carter Beane’s book, a worthy successor to the American Pie film franchise, and Lewis Flinn’s sophisticated lyrics and pop score never fail to deliver in this underrated and highly entertaining musical. The show pokes fun at everything from iPhones to Joel Schumacher’s Batman films and even itself, not least when one of the characters remarks that ‘the best theatre is always a movie first’ (not true of Lysistrata Jones, although a film adaptation is reportedly in the works). Some creative use of spoken voice is made in a few of the numbers, reflecting both cheerleading chants and the score’s hip hop influences. Mercifully, crude sexual innuendos are comparatively few and far between.
Under the artful direction of Luke Sheppard, the 12-strong cast of MA Musical Theatre students was consistently excellent in presenting a piece as unrelentingly hilarious as soul-searchingly serious. Frances Leak was brilliantly assured as Lysistrata Jones, ably portraying a social leader who confidently persuades her BFFs to stop ‘giving it up’ yet remains afflicted by uncertainty in her own resolve. Abigail Parke demonstrated exceptional versatility as Robin, poetry-slamming and goofily street-dancing one minute, scholastically quoting Emily Dickinson the next. Shelly Simon commanded the stage with her imposing presence and powerful vocals, while the song ‘Don’t Judge a Book’ permitted Katrina Holloway a delightfully rewarding turn in the spotlight.
In the score, much like the plot, the girls come off better than the boys. The Sigma Alpha Delta fraternity’s first real opportunity to shine was the ensemble number ‘Lay Low’ (predictably one-bettered just a couple of scenes later by the girls’ ‘I Don’t Think So’); their only solos were ‘Hold On’ and ‘When She Smiles’, heartwarmingly performed by Finlay MacAulay and Alastair Hill, respectively. While the emergence of shows centring on female characters is certainly a welcome development in musical theatre (Wicked being an emblematic milestone in light of its two lead protagonists), in this instance it was a pity that we did not hear more from the talented male cast members.
Lysistrata Jones (the name is possibly a nod to Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones) reveals Aristophanes’ tale of the battle of the sexes to be as relevant to the 21st century as it was to classical antiquity. Guildford School of Acting’s performance perfectly realised its various layers of comedy without neglecting its more profound undercurrents, all the while adeptly navigating the many intricacies of the dialogue as well as Ewan Jones’ ingenious choreography, greatly reminiscent of High School Musical in its sequences with basketballs. Fittingly for a show about not giving it up, this production just kept on giving.