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 Last Ship, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th April 2018

The Last ShipSometime in the late 1950s, obscure East German writer Günther Kähne published the short story Rekord an der Drahtstraße (I know this because I had to study it for German A level), a bizarre tale about a heroic factory worker who put in extra shifts and barely slept in order to achieve the personal highest output of any of his fellow wire-manufacturing colleagues. He did it all purely for the noble cause of working for the communal good of the nation. No thought of pay; no concern about how it affected his health or his family life; it was all to glorify the magnificence of Communist dogma. Well, it was East Germany after all.

Richard Fleeshman as Gideon FletcherForward a couple of decades and observe life in Britain under Thatcher. The country she inherited was in a state; eleven years later she left it in a state, but a somewhat different one. Out went all the manufacturing industries that had been the bedrock of the nation’s economy; one of them was shipbuilding. The programme (and indeed the show) references Nicholas Ridley’s vision of denationalisation and promotion of the free market, which was just another dogma. Countless jobs and the living standards of millions were sacrificed to achieve this aim. Ridley, you’ll remember, was the man who defended the Poll Tax with the words “the squire pays the same as his gamekeeper, what could be fairer than that?” (or was it the Duke and the Dustman? Either way his vision is clear). People were angry – very, very angry.

Ship projections by 59 ProductionsSting grew up in Wallsend, home of shipbuilding; saw the devastation of the decline of the industry and, as part of his fantastic career, wrote an album, The Soul Cages, in 1991, following the death of his father. I don’t know the album, but it’s inspired by the local traditions of going to sea and shipbuilding. Many years later it itself has become the basis and inspiration for his musical The Last Ship, which is finally coming in to dock in the UK on its current tour. (Nautical references… more of those later.)

LS Matt Corner as young Gideon and Parisa ShThere’s not a lot of story. On what appears to be no more than a whim, Gideon Fletcher ups and leaves town on a ship at the age of 17 leaving behind girlfriend Meg; he invited her to come too, but she declined. 17 years later he returns to find the local shipbuilding company has nearly finished building the Utopia, but they can’t find a buyer because it’s too expensive. The only solution to keep some jobs in the local economy is for the shipworkers to break it up and sell it as scrap. Offended by this prospect, not only because of the loss of jobs but primarily because they have built a beautiful thing that they can’t bear to see go to waste, the workers go on strike. I know from my own experience in the 1980s that strikes never had a positive outcome under that government, they just let you starve. In the meantime, Gideon discovers he’s a father to a resentful daughter he didn’t know about and a resentful ex-girlfriend who never told him he was a father. Eventually the shipbuilders decide to take matters into their own hands and complete the work on the Utopia for no payment – just so that it can “get launched”. Are you beginning to see the link with the Communist short story I mentioned earlier?!

The Full Cast of The Last ShipThere’s a lot of good in this production. But, for me, there was also a lot that I found hammy and unsubtle, which, in the final balance, considerably outweighed the good. But let’s concentrate on the good. Overall, visually, it’s an amazing spectacle. 59 Productions have created a glorious set that can recreate a ship, a dockyard, a church, and many other indoor locations. Odd thing #1: Projections onto screens turn a blank canvas into a room, a pub, a nightclub; but why were those projections deliberately fuzzy? The indistinct wallpaper in the White’s front room made me feel positively queasy. It also means that some of the actors sometimes had wallpaper patterns on their face. That’s not right, surely?

Marvin Ford Michael Blair Matt Corner Joe Caffrey Richard FleEven more majestic; the music. There’s a terrific, compact little band that ooze the folk traditions of the region. Fantastic to hear a melodeon being played; there’s no instrument like it, and I could have just listened to that all night. Odd thing #2: They’re playing at far stage left, nicely incorporated into the action without getting in the way. So what’s with the huge orchestra pit, sitting there empty, that’s been provided, and that required the removal of the front five rows of the stalls? Someone clearly didn’t get the memo. And the singing voices of the cast. Impeccable. The harmonies are extraordinary. They fill your heart with emotion and joy and carry you away. By the time I was about a quarter of the way in, I had already promised myself that I must buy the cast recording.

LS The Last Ship Frances McNamee as Meg DawsonBut there were other elements that really dogged me. It wasn’t helped that it took me at least fifteen to twenty minutes to get accustomed to the accents. It was fine in the speaking parts, but during much of the singing they could have been reciting la la la for all I could make out. My ears, my bad. I was also very bemused by the way Meg reacted to the return of Gideon. He’s clearly more sinned against than sinning, constantly getting the blame for ignoring the daughter he didn’t know he had. That’s kinda tough. Personally, I thought Meg was rather an unpleasant character, although I think we’re meant to warm to her… so that part of the story didn’t work for me.

Joe McGann as Jackie White +Charlie Hardwick as Peggy WhiteBut my big bugbear was the lyrics. Fair enough, this is a show about the shipbuilding industry in a shipbuilding town, and they’re building a ship. There is no end to the ship analogies, nautical allusions, harbour references, water clichés… No one finishes a plan, they reach their harbour. No one has a success, their ship comes in. No one finds a solution, they cry land ahoy. Are you getting my nautical drift? By the time they were wallowing in it in the second half I was feeling distinctly seasick. WE GET THE IDEA! Other metaphors are available!

 Joe McGann as Jackie WhiteIt was also very preachy. The battle between the bad guys (the shipbuilding company owner and the pompous Baroness from the House of Lords – two excellent performances by Sean Kearns and Penelope Woodman) versus the good guys (everyone else) was seen in very black and white terms. It romanticised the Communist ideals of the workforce and their glorious effort in finishing the Utopia (that name’s not accidental) for free; fair enough, I guess, but, in a direct address to the audience, virtually out of character, the message was spread deeper and wider and I found myself resenting the cast telling me what I should feel about the NHS for example, or other areas of strife in the world. This felt less like a show and more like a rally. I’m a naturally left-wing slanted person, but this preachiness actually made me sympathise with the ruling classes, which isn’t something I’m used to. I hope I’m not turning into Quentin Letts.

mir Orla Gormley Frances McNamee Annie GraceBoth the start of the show, and the start of the second half, begin with cast members wandering onto the stage, waving at the audience, chatting to people about their dress sense, etc. I’m sure it was meant to suggest equality between the cast and the audience, but it felt a bit patronising, a bit smug. There was never any question that we would be required to support the shipbuilders in this story; they assumed right from the start that we would be on their side. What does assume do? It makes an ass out of u and me. Correct.

Joe McGann as Jackie WhiteThe performances were all very good, even if some of the characters were rather irritating. Mrs Chrisparkle didn’t follow one word that Kevin Wathen’s drunken and belligerent Davey uttered all evening. He has the kind of voice that the late Sir Terry Wogan would have described as gargling with razor blades; he seemed almost to be a parody of a hard-nosed, hard-drinking Tynesider. Charlie Richmond gave a good performance as Adrian, but the character was immensely tedious, because every statement he made started with a quotation from literature. Rather like the seaside metaphors throughout, this was another unsubtle element.

Full cast of The Last ShipRichard Fleeshman was very strong in the role of Gideon, and if his acting career ever goes wayward, he can always get a job fronting a Police Tribute Act. Is his singing voice naturally almost identical to Sting’s? Incredible if so. Otherwise it’s two and a half hours of very well-learned impersonation. There are also excellent performances by Charlie Hardwick as Peggy White (superb voice) and Joe McGann (surprisingly good voice) as Jackie White, both Labour-to-the-core old-timers.

Projections by 59 ProductionsShiver me timbers, we never thought the second half was going to stop; talk about dragging the arse out of it. With beautiful melodies, amazing vocals, stunning musical arrangements and a set to die for, they created a both dogmatic and didactic blancmange of romanticised political hoo-ha. Earlier, I’d read a review that likened The Last Ship to Howard Goodall’s Hired Man. Mr Goodall should sue.

P. S. I decided against buying the cast album.

Production photos by Pamela Raith