Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: James Brining
Leeds Playhouse and Opera North’s triumphant production of A Little Night Music has almost a symbolic part to play in what we hope this time is a genuine opening up of the entertainment industry. No doubt social distancing played a part in the blocking and rehearsal of the production – and certainly in the audience seating – but there is no sense of that: this is a full-on performance of a musical superbly directed, acted, sung and played.
Yet, with all the totally deserved acclaim, there is a little niggle. Stephen Sondheim’s score is brilliantly original, his lyrics pointed, witty and often ambiguous, but the book by Hugh Wheeler, stylish no doubt and with its own witty moments, labours through too much pseudo-sophistication and superficial definitions of love and life.
The story, suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, assembles an odd group of characters at Madame Armfeldt’s country villa in Act 2 to reveal the truth about themselves. Act 1 has given us the complicated relations between them. Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged lawyer, has been married for 11 months to a much younger woman, Anne, who has preserved her virginity. Fredrik’s God-fearing son, Henrik, is ravaged by unfulfilled desire for Anne. When Fredrik goes to see an old flame, Desiree Armfeld, act at the local theatre, his desire is rekindled, but she has a married lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a dragoon with a penchant for issuing challenges. There are further complications, but Wheeler and Sondheim are pretty perfunctory in dealing with them.
The production shows much of what’s best about Leeds Playhouse and Opera North. Nobody understands better than James Brining how to use the open space of the Quarry Theatre stage and Madeleine Boyd’s transformation of a push-around furniture Act 1 set into a sunken garden, fountain and pond is magical – wonderfully sensitive lighting from Chris Davey, too.
Opera North’s Orchestra – some 25 strong for this production – plays beautifully for James Holmes and the Chorus again shows its strength (as actors as well as singers) in many of the principal roles. Brining’s interpretation of the role of the choric quintet and the performances of Gillene Butterfield, Molly Barker, Claire Pascoe, Dean Robinson and Tim Ochala-Greenough are almost the best thing in the evening. Garbed in late 19th century country style, they shove scenery around and react in character to all the silliness of their so-called betters. One of Sondheim’s happiest inspirations is to have the memory song for Fredrik and Desiree, Remember, sung by the quintet and acted by the former lovers.
As the aged Madame Armfeld, Dame Josephine Barstow dominates the stage whenever she is on and imparts her wisdom with a caustic wit. Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley manage perfectly to suggest the passage of time and the pursuit of lost youth as Fredrik and Desiree, he torn between the demands of sex and a nice nap, she investing the one big song, Send in the Clowns, with all the quiet intensity it demands.
Laurence Kilsby’s mix of priggishness and sexual torment as Henrik is horribly convincing and, though Corinne Cowling takes longer to register Anne’s subtler agonies, she makes sense of one of the play’s more elusive characters. In contrast Christopher Nairne as the gimlet-eyed, pea-brained Count and Helen Evora as his jealous wife with a crazy plan of (pretty harmless) revenge have licence to go over the top – and do so with aplomb and comic timing. There are well-judged performances, too, from Agatha Meehan as Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter and the recipient of all Grandma’s wisdom, and Amy J. Payne, Anne’s maid, with an earthier approach to the matter of love and sex. It’s typical of Sondheim’s iconoclasm that he gives the Broadway belter of a number to the maid – and Payne reminds us that, early in his career, Sondheim wrote for Ethel Merman.
Reservations aside, the stamp of the evening’s quality is the magical staging and performance of A Weekend in the Country, the wonderfully complex finale to Act 1 – Mozart, anyone?
Runs until July 17th 2021