Review – Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

CompanyFew 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.

Rosalie CraigBut 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.

Company castBut 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).

Company partyThis 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.

Paul and JamieHere 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.

Bobbie and friendsAs 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.

the setFrom 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.

Bobbie and palAnd 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.

Patti LuPoneIt’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.

Sarah and HarryMel 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.

the castJonathan 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.

Company in bedIt’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

Review – The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, 28th December 2017

The FerrymanThe third of our theatrical treats between Christmas and the New Year was this extraordinary production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which had transferred from the Royal Court earlier in the year for a limited period. Such is the demand for seats that the production has already been extended twice. If you go to see this hoping to discover exactly why you shouldn’t pay the ferryman until he gets Chris de Burgh to the other side, you might be sadly disappointed. What you will get, however, is a sizzling and thrilling story set in Northern Ireland in 1981 that shows how the sectarian divide affected one particular extended family.

Aunt Maggie with the kidsNine years before, Seamus Carney went missing, leaving behind his wife Caitlin and three-year-old son Oisin. Word was that he had got on a ferry to Liverpool, but had never kept in contact with his family. The wife and son moved in with Seamus’ brother Quinn and his wife Mary, who lived in a farm in County Armagh with their several children, aged relatives, and miscellaneous livestock. Whilst they never forgot their missing husband and father, they did their best to get on with their lives. Until one day, local priest Father Horrigan is mysteriously called to Derry where he discovers that a body has been found… He knows it is undeniably Seamus but why did he meet his death, and who is this mysterious Mr Muldoon who gains both fear and respect in equal measure? The play sets itself up to be a full-throttle thriller, part whodunit, part whydunit; however, when Father Horrigan returns to Armagh to break the news to the Carney family we realise the significance of the death will be much greater than first thought.

Father HorriganJez Butterworth has created a stunningly written play about a complex family environment which Sam Mendes’ production brings to life with more depth and insight than you could imagine. The huge farmhouse kitchen extends deep into the back of the Gielgud stage; the tall, steep staircase from above disgorges more family members than you could predict down to the big table that is the focal point for the family’s activities. In one corner sits an old aunt, most of the time her mind locked in a dementia-filled prison, occasionally returning to life to amuse the children with stories of old. Opposite her sits another aunt, chain-smoking, her attention captured by the radio news and the speech of Prime Minister Thatcher talking about the IRA hunger strikers. Between them the stage is filled with children of all ages, both Carneys and their cousins the Corcorans, some of them idealists, some realists, but none of them without an opinion. Neighbour Tom Kettle drops by with apples for the children, and maybe a rabbit in his deep pockets; a simple soul but with the strength of two men, as becomes apparent as the story develops. There’s always so much going on for the audience to observe that the play constantly keeps you on your toes, despite its long length of three hours and ten minutes – at least. All human life is there, as the News of the World once boasted.

Quinn and MuldoonIf you remember the Northern Ireland troubles, as they are euphemistically referred to, that period of total distrust and thinly veiled enmity which we hope and pray will never return, you’ll probably have a sense of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. This play will challenge those preconceptions, and make you reappraise both sides of the gulf. Few of us are all good or all bad. And who knows what someone is capable of if their homeland, or their family, or anything they hold dear are directly threatened. The play has a surprise, shocking ending that I certainly could not see coming and you’ll be applauding the curtain call with your heart in your mouth.

Sarah Greene and Will HoustonThe performance we saw, gentle reader, which was the matinee on Thursday 28th December, had a drama all of its own. On arrival we were informed that there would be two cast changes, and that chain-smoking, IRA supporting Aunt Pat would be played by Mary Keegan and that Seamus’ son Oisin would be played by Conor Gormally. All well and good, and I thought Ms Keegan in particular was stonkingly effeective as the difficult old cow, picking fights with anyone who’ll stop still, insinuating scandal and discontent within the household – a memorable and powerful performance. Then came the interval, which was scheduled for fifteen minutes. After about twenty-seven minutes, the stage manager appeared and apologised for the delay but explained that Will Houston, who was playing Quinn Carney, had been taken ill and his role would be continued by Dean Ashton. I thought Mr Houston was giving a tremendous performance as Quinn, a superb portrayal of a man who has to wear many hats – father, husband, brother in law; provider, stabiliser, role model. So I was very surprised to see that he couldn’t continue. It must be very difficult to come on during a show and assume a role that the audience has already attributed to a different actor, but Mr Ashton did a grand job, although I felt his characterisation of Quinn was a little more reserved than Mr Houston’s.

Shane CorcoranThen there was what the programme describes as a “brief pause” between the second and third act, with the ushers asking us to stay in our seats as it was only about a two-minute break. After about ten minutes, the stage manager reappeared, like a valued old friend popping in to see if we were doing alright. Apologies again, but this time one of the child actors had been taken ill, so Master Thomas Harrison, who had been playing Declan Corcoran, would be replaced by Master Jack Nuttall and he was quickly getting his costume on. What on earth was going on back there? They were dropping like flies. Young Mr Nuttall was superb by the way; he had a number of quite complex – and comic – speeches early in the third act and he carried it all off brilliantly. But never before had a cast looked quite so relieved at curtain call to have actually made it to the end, nor had an audience been so grateful for the presence of the safety curtain to keep whatever lurgy was running riot away from us!

Uncle Pat in chargeThe production was notable for some other excellent performances; Sarah Greene was superb as the widowed Caitlin, enjoying what comfort she could from her close relationship with her brother in law, feisty when defending herself but dignified when she knows she cannot beat the system. Charles Dale was also excellent as Father Horrigan, desperately trying to provide as much support as he can whilst knowing that he too is beaten and could easily make things worse. Laurie Davidson gives a great performance as the progressively drunk and indiscreet Shane Corcoran, and Ivan Kaye is a disarmingly kind Tom Kettle, his seething pile of emotions never too far from the surface. There’s also a terrific performance from Stuart Graham as the quietly calculating and intimidating Muldoon. But this is a true ensemble piece, and the understanding between all the cast members, young and old, is a total joy to watch. I can’t recommend it too highly. As of today, 8th January 2018, a brand new cast is taking over until May.

P. S. When it comes to this year’s theatrical awards, this production is a shoe-in for Best Fowl in a Supporting Role.

Production photos by Johan Persson