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

Eurovision You Decide, The UK National Final at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town, 26th February 2016

Pete WatermanIt’s hard to believe but it has been six years* since the UK had a Proper National Final where the public could choose both the song and the performer that would represent the country at the Eurovision Song Contest. How well I remember the excitement of six years ago. I even wrote a blog post in amazement that the one and only Pete Waterman – oodathortit – would be in charge of our entry that year. I implored him to write a great song, to be fully involved in the process, to make us all proud. Sigh. Compare that with what actually happened. It was a rubbish song, he’d never seen a Eurovision stage since the 1980s and his support to our winning act was – let’s be charitable – invisible. To be fair, we had some excellent performers to choose from. Josh Dubovie is terrific at the Michael Buble style of music. Alexis Gerred has carved out a very successful career in musical theatre. Esma – well, having forgotten her words during the show, she’s done well to apply herself at the London School of Economics and go on to do Good Things. Josh won that contest with a song that was completely unsuited to his style; he went to Oslo with a dog’s dinner of a staging, was hung out to dry and came a stonking good last.

BlueSince then we’ve been down the road of internal selections. Blue was a good bet, and had a good song, but the vocals and the staging again let them down at the big show. Engelbert was a risky strategy, being completely the wrong kind of singer (and age); if his song had appeared anywhere other than first or second in the running order it may have got a few votes simply by being an antidote to the more regular Eurovision fayre. As it was, it was sung first and therefore was the antidote to nothing, and was bizarrely saved from last place by the much better Tooji from Norway. Bonnie was the same risky strategy; she also made a mess of the jury final and came 23rd, with a lot of help from a sympathetic Irish vote. In 2014 Molly was a step in the right direction but she made poor eye contact with the audience, and gave a thoroughly introverted performance, fully deserving of its 17th place. Last year Electro Velvet gave us a 1920s song but with a 1990s presentation – two excellent performers but just very wrong for contemporary Eurovision.

Colin BerryAnd so we reach 2016, and a proper contest in a proper venue, with six songs and performers, the majority of whom sounded perfectly contemporary to me (although what do I know) and none of them were sufficiently gimmicky to make us quake with fear when it comes to May. It was a school day, so Mrs Chrisparkle was conducting high level business meetings until 4pm and didn’t get into London until 6pm, but HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford and I had arrived earlier for a spot of lunch and the pre-show OGAE UK party hosted in the elegant surroundings of the upstairs bar at a Kentish Town Road pub. It was appropriate that OGAE should host a pre- and post- party, as for the first time Official Fan Club members had been invited to assist in selecting a song from the public submissions. Everybody involved in it was sworn to secrecy. I could tell you if I was one of the people who took part in the selection – but then I would have to kill you. And that would be an awful waste of a decent life. An early highlight of the afternoon was meeting Radio 2 and Eurovision announcing legend Mr Colin Berry, who’s every bit as avuncular and charming as you would imagine. I was also quizzed for my opinion on the National Final in an interview for Radio International, where I play a small but beautifully formed part every few weeks.

Eurovision You DecideAfter quaffing a reasonable number of alcohol units, we all walked up the road to the venue. I’d not been to the O2 Forum before – it’s a converted art deco cinema dating from 1934 and a pretty useful place to hold an event like this. We arrived shortly before 7, met up with loads of other friends, found a convenient place to stand – near the back but against a railing so we had a) a raised view above heads and b) somewhere to loll. Our host for the evening was Mel Giedroyc, a genuine Eurovision fan it seems to me; not only one of our new BBC commentators for the semi-finals but also fondly remembered for her hilarious Boyka in Eurobeat that we saw three times in 2009 (I think). Eurobeat is coming back this summer to the Edinburgh Fringe – Mrs C and I are already champing at the bit.

The panelUnlike many other countries who involve a jury as well, the UK winner was chosen purely by televote. We had an expert panel, but they were there only to give their comments and maybe guide the viewers in what they thought was the right direction. Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of time for in-depth commenting. Vocal coach Carrie Grant was perhaps the most outspoken of the three but I must say I thought some of her comments were downright weird. Choreographer Jay Revell is obviously no relation to choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, as he was the permanent nice guy of the panel, seeing the best in each entry and generally being encouraging. 1997 Eurovision winner Katrina (of the Waves) had a dodgy microphone and a tendency to shout her responses with the result that I barely heard a word she said.

Mans ZWe started the evening off with a reprise performance by last year’s winner Måns Zelmerlöw (one of the most intimidating names to type on a UK keyboard). What an entertainer that man (or should that be mån) is. Heroes remains as fresh as a daisy, and the inventive chalkguy video that runs behind him still warms the cockles of your heart. Mel interviewed Måns afterwards with ill-concealed lust. I was waiting for the Crown Prince to tell the story of how he and Måns shared a hug last year. I resolved to combat that with my story about how Elizabeth Andreassen of Bobbysocks and I flirted outrageously when we met a few years ago. One-all.

The first act was Canterbury busking duo Dulcima. He’s called Tomas, she’s called Dulcima, and they’re called Dulcima. Someone should tell Tomas to get new marketing staff. Their song is the irrepressibly infectious, thigh-slapping hoe-down tune When You Go. This is Mrs C’s favourite of the six, and I can see why. Very catchy, the kind of song that brings a smile to your face when you hear it. In the hall it sounded great. When we got home and watched the recorded programme we were amazed at how poor Dulcima’s vocals were. Weak as a parvo-puppy, I’m afraid. Carrie Grant said that she thought with their costuming and appearance she was expecting something darker. Darker? Dulcima herself looks like the hippiest folk chick out there. She’s pure Woodstock from head to toe (the festival, not the Snoopy character). She’s about as dark as Tiny Tim singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

The second act was ex Bad Boys Inc singer Matthew James with A Better Man. When the songs were first unveiled on Ken Bruce’s radio show I thought it sounded really contemporary (that word again) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it looks like I was just about the only one as it was the rank outsider at 40-1 (not very promising in a field of six). I thought he gave it a very good performance but you could tell it just wasn’t capturing anyone’s imagination. We were standing near his family all wearing their Vote Matthew t-shirts and no matter how much they whooped, they were never going to affect the result. Come the end of the evening they were a picture of misery, poor things.

Next came Until Tomorrow by Darline. Another country sounding song, performed by two pretty girls, Abby and Càra. Country doesn’t normally do that well in Eurovision, although pretty girls do. These were a very popular combo, but I confess I don’t like the timbre of the warble of the blonde girl. Carrie Grant criticised them for not being together enough – not a duo, more like two side-by-side soloists, and I think she was spot on. It’s not, as I thought, Darline, rhymes with Margarine, but Darline, rhymes with Northern Line. What kind of a silly name is that? Very popular in the hall and I know much enjoyed by the fans. But it wasn’t to be.

The fourth act was Karl William Lund, with Miracle. This was the entry that had been chosen by the OGAE members as their contribution to the sextet of songs. Now here’s a Marmite song if ever there was one. To many it was the obvious winner, to others it was totally dire. For me it fell between the two. I was chatting to a friend at the bar and we both agreed that it has the elements of being a great song, but it just needs a little more development. Certainly the presentation was very static and the arrangement could have done with oomphing up. However, three days on, it is the chorus of Miracle that is persistently, irritatingly, infuriatingly, and constantly re-emerging in my musical brain. There it goes again. Stop it, Karl William, you’re getting on my nerves!

The fifth act was the rather classy Bianca (no relation to Electro Velvet’s Bianca) with Shine a Little Light. Again this was popular with many of the fans, particularly the ones who like the strong female power ballad. That style isn’t entirely to my taste all the time, and whilst I thought she gave a very fine performance I just find the song a little… generic balladish to make me sit up and listen.

Last up were Joe and Jake, both alumni from The Voice, a programme that I always think I am going to enjoy but then turns out to be a complete anti-climax once the audition stage is over. Their song, You’re not Alone, is very nearly as catchy as Miracle and When You Go but performed with real commitment and joy. Of the six I concluded this was probably our best potential entry, performed by a couple of cheery lads who actually sing pretty well and have a good stage presence together. And it appears that the rest of the Great British Public agreed with me, as this will indeed be the UK’s entry for Stockholm in May 2016. You’re Not Alone, We’re in this Together – could be David Cameron and George Osborne’s next release.

KatrinaAfter a rousing rendition of Katrina’s Love Shine a Light (always a favourite), some memories of the Eurovision’s Greatest Hits show from last year and a tribute to the late Sir Terry Wogan, the result was announced by giving us just the name of the winner – no agonising “and in sixth place…..” Joe and Jake were well chuffed, the other five acts magnanimous in defeat, and the rest of us headed back to the pub to continue the post-show analysis and socialising. Just drinking really.

Mel GiedroycGood things about the night – the introductory films before each song were insightful and considered the lyrics and why the singer found them special, which I thought was a neat trick of introducing both the song and the singer in a meaningful and factual way. The fact that it was on BBC4 meant that it was under the auspices of BBC Music instead of BBC Light Entertainment and it felt like a much more credible programme. Its viewership of 678,900 may not sound many, but the average for that slot is a paltry 167,000, so it’s an improvement of something around 300%. Mel Giedroyc was an excellent host, managing the live aspect with humour and confidence, so that when things (inevitably) went wrong, she didn’t go to pieces. Among the less good things – the sound in the arena was very bassy and quite uncomfortable to listen to; I’m not sure the panel added that much to the experience; and the O2 Forum charges £3 per item for their cloakroom. You’ve never seen so many guys keep their coats on all night.

Joe and JakeBest of luck to Joe and Jake – I don’t think it’s a winner but I don’t think it’s going to shame us either. All will be decided on 14th May. However, before that, we’ve got the London Eurovision Preview Party to look forward to on 17th April, where we can listen to several of this year’s acts and see how well they measure up. Happy Eurovisioning!

*It has been pointed out that in 2010 the UK public only got to choose the singer, not the song. The last time we chose both was in 2008. Dang! My mistake. Oh well.

If the picture looks rubbish, that’s because I took it. If it looks professional and smart then it was taken by DizzyDJC on Flickr. Thanks for letting me use your photos, Dan!