Few theatrical creators have as great a reputation as Stephen Sondheim. With a CV as long as a Baby Grand, he’s done it all from West Side Story (1957) to Road Show (2008) with an ability to write not only incredible music but also deep insights into the human psyche and relationships. My first brush with him was Side By Side By Sondheim, for which the 16-year-old me had a top price ticket in January 1977; but the night before the show thirteen bombs exploded in Oxford Street, including one setting Selfridges on fire, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle refused to let me travel to London on grounds of safety. I was furious; with her, with the terrorists, with life. But I was barred, and I couldn’t do anything about it; defying her would have had even worse consequences. My lovely Wyndhams’ ticket had to go to waste.
But three months later I got the chance to go again, on the day after my 17th birthday, and I loved it. Such a sophisticated entertainment – and the perfect introduction to the man’s work. I was hooked on Sondheim, and determined to hear and see whatever I could in those pre-Internet days. Many of the songs from Company (1970) were performed in Side By Side By Sondheim, so that was an obvious show for me to track down. But there were to be no London revivals until 1995, and it wasn’t until Mrs C and I took Lady Prosecco to the excellent production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2011, that I finally got to see the show. And, because that was so enjoyable, when I heard that there was to be a new West End production, I wasn’t particularly motivated to book for it, as I already had happy memories of the previous production, which didn’t need wiping from my mind.
But then I saw the reviews. And the word of mouth, not only generally online, but also from friends who had gone to see it; and to say they were bowled over is an understatement. So we booked; and I can tell you now, gentle reader, that even before the interval had come along, I already knew I had to see it again. And possibly again after that. I have no hesitation in saying that this is probably one of the ten best productions I’ve seen in my life (and, as at today, according to my spreadsheet, I’ve seen 1,751 shows of some sort or other).
This Company has a twist. Let me briefly (if you don’t know) explain the story as it’s normally presented. Bobby is 35, all his friends are married, and he’s feeling the pressure to comply. But (and there are two buts); 1) all the people he knows, who could have wife-potential, don’t come up to scratch for one reason or another and 2) all his married friends seem to have totally bonkers relationships, which doesn’t really sell the concept. On his 35th birthday, they arrange for a surprise birthday party for him (which he knows about), and this brings matters to a head. And that’s basically it.
Here comes the science part. Marianne Elliott’s innovative new production turns Bobby into Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman, which makes absolute sense to me; most 35-year-old unmarried guys in my opinion would be congratulating themselves on successfully avoiding the commitment, whereas a 35-year-old unmarried woman will most definitely be seen as Left On The Shelf by some people. In another twist, Paul and Amy, who are engaged – and Amy is a nervous wreck about it – have been changed to Paul and Jamie; in the sophisticated New York social scene it’s highly unlikely that Bobbie wouldn’t have been friends with at least one gay couple. In fact, we saw the very first performance of a same-sex Paul and Jamie version, at Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Celebrations at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in 2010 (crumbs that means he’ll be 89 this year), where Daniel Evans and Graham Bickley teamed up to perform Getting Married Today together – it worked well then, and it works even better now.
As a result of the gender switch, all Bobbie’s possible suitors are now guys, which brings a totally new dimension to the gender power struggle. In this scenario, Bobbie has the same potential for control over her relationships as Bobby does; plus it transforms both the pathos and comedy of songs like Barcelona and You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bobbie is an empowered woman, but the empowerment befuddles her somewhat – and the prospect of settling down with Andy, for example, is, frankly, horrendous (as depicted in a fantastically well reimagined Tick Tock) – so she is left to make the best of a sequence of relationship crises. The final song, Being Alive, is a desperate plea to experience all the mental anguish of a tough relationship which, so far, Bobbie has conveniently excised from her life. No longer a “watcher”, she’s going to be a “doer”. An optimistic ending? You decide. If ever there was a grown-up musical, this is the one.
From the moment you enter the stunningly beautiful auditorium, the impact of what appears on the stage hits you. In bold neon colours, COMPANY stares out at you like a warning sign, both intimidating and enticing, with its strong coloured border around the word. This visual motif continues with Bunny Christie’s brilliant stage design, which features a brightly lit coloured border surrounding individual pod modules of sets that slide in and out, up and down across the stage, creating interconnecting rooms, that – bizarrely – emphasise both the isolation of the characters and their relationships with each other. Of course, it goes without saying that, technically, everything about this production is of such a high standard that it takes your breath away. Not only the superb set, but also Neil Austin’s vibrant lighting, Liam Steel’s swish choreography, the superb costumes – Bobbie’s flashy red dress stands out for many reasons – and Joel Fram’s fantastic orchestra.
And the cast – they’re just sensational throughout. At the centre of this show, and hardly ever off-stage, is an overwhelmingly fantastic performance by Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. This is the third time we’ve seen Ms Craig on stage – and, boy, hasn’t she come a long way! At that Sheffield production of Company she played Marta, one of Bobby’s three on-off girlfriends; then she was a feisty Miss Julie at Chichester in 2014. If she carries on like this she’ll be the greatest Dame of the Theatre that ever lived by the time she’s 50. She has an instant connection with the audience; we’re completely on her side, no matter what life throws at her character. Not only is she at home with the dramatic intensity of Bobbie’s life, but her feeling for the comedy is immaculate, and her facial expressions are so clear and direct, we know precisely what she’s thinking all the time. And then, of course, she reveals a superb singing voice. She’s just a knock-out.
It’s also a pleasure and a privilege to finally see Miss Patti LuPone on stage – our paths have never crossed but we don’t get that many opportunities to see her this side of the Atlantic. She plays Joanne, the most cynical and hard-nosed of all Bobbie’s friends. We all know a Joanne – she’s the one with no time for fake sentiment, who constantly (and hilariously) avers that if you don’t blow out the candles on your cake, the wish doesn’t come true. Musically, she has two big moments – The Little Things You Do Together, in which she is beautifully acerbic, and The Ladies Who Lunch, where she is impeccably tragic. But all the way through the show she adds fantastic little touches of magic, and I now see why people love her so much. When she’s on stage, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Absolutely brilliant.
Mel Giedroyc brings out all the neurotic and sinister humour of the horrendous Sarah, perpetually correcting her long-suffering husband Harry (a great performance from Gavin Spokes), not letting him get away with glossing over the minutest peccadilloes if there’s a chance of making him look bad in public. Their ju-jitsu scene is superbly comic and alarmingly terrifying. Daisy Maywood (fantastic in both A Chorus Line and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk) and Ashley Campbell are also a treat as Susan and Peter, the couple who get on so much better when they’re divorced than married; she’s so composed and he’s so fluttery, with his endless fainting spells – it’s a really funny combination. Ms Maywood is also the vital third part (as the Priest) of the hilarious Getting Married Today, the song that expresses Jamie’s pre-wedding jitters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song in a musical staged so inventively, expressively and hilariously as this number. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s theatrical magic.
Jonathan Bailey (showing a hugely different range of talents from when we saw him as the self-effacing Edgar in Chichester’s King Lear a couple of years ago) is magnificent as the doubting, uncertain Jamie, and his performance of that song is a total tour-de-force. He is matched by the brilliant Alex Gaumond, one of my favourite actors, as Paul; a completely opposite character – calm, reliable, able to withstand anything that life chucks at him. When it looks like the wedding is off, his quiet, dignified reaction is incredibly moving to watch.
It’s a large cast, so if I mention everyone we’ll be here all day, but I must commend to you Richard Fleeshman’s absolutely brilliant Andy, the air steward himbo who’s as thick as two short planks but kindly as. The lengths to which Bobbie has to go to properly get him into bed should be worth some award of its own. The all-feller You Can Drive a Person Crazy, in which Mr Fleeshman plays a considerable part, isn’t just three guys mimicking three ditzy blondes, but is full of masculine attitude and asides that take that favourite old song and completely reinvents it. I don’t know what more I can say to you to express just how good this show is. For some criminal reason, it’s closing on 30th March, having already had one extension. But I’m sure it could go on for years if they wanted. We enjoyed it so much that it completely blitzed our minds so that we could barely concentrate on our evening show; and we’ve done nothing but talk about it since then. You have to see it!
Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg