Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Paul Foster
Reviewer: David Jobson
Now in their 50th year, the Watermill Theatre returns to one of the finest musical composers of all time, Stephen Sondheim. Their production of Sweeney Todd went on to London and Broadway, with a cast that combined the roles of both actor and musician. Once again they use this concept to produce an intimate production of A Little Night Music.
The musical follows Frederick Egerman, a lawyer who lives a contented but sexless marriage with his young wife Anne and his son Henrik. Behind this facade, he has a history of relationships, particularly with the famous actress, Desiree Armfeldt, and when he meets her again a series of affairs, jealousy and regret slowly emerges out of the woodwork.
Sondheim is known for his melodic and complex songwriting but this musical shows the attention he and Hugh Wheeler always give to his characters. This musical is jam packed with characters and yet each one of them is given enough time to fully blossom.
The first act is a long but it takes its time introducing a myriad of couples, families, love-triangles and love-quadrangles, all interlaced into one story that builds up to the main event when everyone is invited to Weekend in the Country.
First the musical introduces Frederick Egermn, and Alastair Brookshaw brings charm to the role as he sings his torn desire for the two women in his life. His naivety is apparent when he suggests You Must Meet My Wife to a frustrated Desiree. Lucy Keirl meanwhile is childlike and vain as Anne, holding on to her virginity believing in an unworldly and pure view of marriage. She chides Frederick’s son Henrick, a seminary student, with teasing for the reverent life he lives, not knowing the love he has for her.
To add to this love triangle, in comes Deseree’s rival lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. A short tempered military man, Alex Hammond portrays his fiery jealousy with alacrity. He towers over Frederick when he catches him in his dressing gown with Desiree, leaving the poor man to come up with a hilarious story that the audience warmly receive. But the biggest laughs are saved for the more cynical of this long line of characters. Phoebe Filder is never short of a biting remark as Count Malcolm’s wife, who can see right through his lies. Her grief is aptly expressed during Every Day A Little Death. On the sidelines sits Dillie Keane as Deseree’s ageing mother, Madame Armfeldt. With her witty words of wisdom, she is as shrewd as nails as she watches the adults act like fools. She is a lady who has seen too much and at one point reminisces with bliss and bitterness her Liaisons with royalty.
It’s astounding watching this musical taking its time to set up and build on all these weaving plot lines. It’s not until they are invited to spend the weekend at Madame Armfeldt’s country house that tensions boil, revelations pour out, and characters begin to look at themselves, with poignant results.
What holds this production back somewhat is the actor-musician concept that the theatre is known for. It works in action packed musicals like Crazy for You, Oliver, and Calamity Jane, but in a character driven piece like A Little Night Music, it slightly gets in the way of the storytelling. Undoubtedly the cast works with enthusiasm but there are a wealth of subtleties that could be portrayed if they weren’t sharing both roles.
During the ensemble numbers when everyone has to step out in character but still heaving their instruments around, things get cluttered. The first 10 minutes has a long melodic overture that becomes very crowded and confusing, however, the production’s concept doesn’t take away from the beauty of the score and book. while Sondheim can be an acquired taste at times, his melodic songs are a joy to listen to, especially the counterpoint song A Weekend in the Country which brings the first act to a climactic finale.
But the song that transcends this musical is the classic Send in the Clowns. This reviewer has heard its melancholic notes before, but to see it in the context of the story is extraordinary. It’s a testament to the craft of the musical to see the stories build up to this song. Josephina Gabrielle as Desiree, living a supposed glamorous life, leading everyone on a merry dance, and in this one scene time seems to stop as a revelation hits her. She is left to give a beautiful rendition of the song.
A Little Night Music is a finely tuned and complex musical where Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler weaved story and music together to create one of the finest pieces in musical history. Under Paul Foster’s direction, the cast delivers gorgeously, despite the use of the instruments, on a gorgeous set designed by David Woodhead.
A must see.
Runs until 16 September 2017 | Image: Philip Tull