Anthony Newley’s strange love of allegory was apparent in Stop the World where he played the role of Littlechap. In Roar, he took it up another level but thankfully did not go as far as he would do in his strange film about Hieronymus Merkin. In that film, he seemed to depict an allegory of his life that was an odd blend of self-congratulation, self-flagellation and self-aggrandizement, without any of the charm that was so evident in his appearances on TV shows or in interviews. The grandiosity of that film was thankfully not present in Roar. The allegory here is confined to a rather weak analysis of politics, where the put-upon Cocky states an ambition or goal and tries to attain it in a game against Sir, who invents and changes rules as necessary in order to win each game and humiliate his adversary. The Negro comes along and shows that it is possible to win simply by ignoring or defying Sir’s capricious rule-making. Cocky sees new possibilities and starts travelling the world in search of new games, taking along his unwilling Sir.
As an analysis of the human condition it is weak, maybe embarrassingly so. However, Bricusse and Newley were a great song writing partnership at the height of their powers and there are enough wonderful songs to make the storyline almost redundant. Among the numbers that have taken on an independent life are Who can I turn to?, The Joker, Feeling Good and A wonderful day like today. There are two very strong power ballads that could easily become standards – This Dream and My first love song. As if this is not already enough, the score is also sprinkled with good, solid, variety-type songs: With all due respect, Where would you be without me?, What a man!, Nothing can stop me now!
The show stands or falls on the calibre of its performers. Newley’s songs always tended to be powerful and emotionally charged, which is why they tended to attract open-hearted singers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Bassey, Tony Bennett. The original cast of this show had Norman Wisdom as Cocky. Sure he had the emotional openness and could handle the pathos but did he really have enough of the necessary charisma, assertiveness and swagger to counter-balance? The role was surely, as David Merrick recognised, made for Newley and his assumption of it must explain why this odd, simplistic, naïf allegory of the British class system was successful in the USA. Matthew Ashforde had the unenviable task of taking on a legendary performer in one of his greatest roles. Inevitably, there was a lot of Newley in his performance but he did eventually manage to make the role his own, to claim it for himself. As Sir, Oliver Beamish was the necessary blend of supercilious roguishness, hypocrisy and sheer spiteful malevolence. As the Kid, Lucy Watts was the strutting, assertive but basically likeable brat so often played in British films of the 50s by the likes of Harry Fowler and Newley himself. Louisa Maxwell was a gorgeous, glamorous girl for Cocky to serenade with his love song.
One of the most important and appealing elements of this show is the gang of urchins who act as a kind of chorus, introducing, participating in and commenting on the action. They always seemed fully involved in the production and really helped to focus it. I might perhaps single out Elizabeth Rowden as the performer who drew my eyes most often, thanks to the commitment she showed, but that is no criticism of the rest of the group. Ian Judge and Tim Goodchild worked a miracle to scale the show into such a small space and make it so lively and energetic and involving. At the end, the lady sitting beside me agreed that it was a great production and said that she was going home to listen to the cast album. My reply was that I was going to do exactly the same.