Sondheim in the City in Marianne Elliott’s transformative 21st-century reworking
The 1970 London production of Company was my first experience of a Sondheim musical and for me a revelation and a game-changer. I was enchanted by the marriage of music and words, the sophistication of both and the wit and precision of the man’s lyrics (he once said he’d swallowed a rhyming dictionary but so many of his rhymes are entirely unexpected). His insights into and his perception of the workings of relationships, friendship and marriage went beyond these apparently worldly-wise New Yorkers and spoke to me, several years before I met my own life partner.
Now, in Marianne Elliott’s inspired reimagining, fully endorsed by Sondheim himself, her enthusiastic collaborator, Company is once again a game-changer. No longer a period piece set firmly in the 70s, but in her almost 2020 vision, minted new and fresh by morphing the single man at the centre of a circle of married friends into a single woman. Bobby is Bobbie and, for this 35-year-old, the ticking of her body clock as she considers whether she wants children is a pressing part of her dilemma (there’s a telling fantasy sequence where she imagines the stages of pregnancy and motherhood from bump to push chair). She craves privacy, but fears isolation; she needs to connect, but how much? Her friends regard marrying her off as a challenge, though these couples at various stages of married life don’t exactly present an ideal template to Rosalie Craig’s intelligent, conflicted Bobbie.
The action – real or imagined by Bobbie – takes place on her 35th birthday, where she either escapes, or is trapped into, a surprise birthday party arranged by the eponymous company of her besties, complete with garish oversized age number balloons and lavish cake blazing with candles. She is also trapped in a claustrophobic New York by designer Bunnie Christie’s metaphorical “little boxes”, interlocking apartment rooms, outlined in coloured neon, crowned by the superb 15-strong band (playing David Cullen’s gorgeous orchestrations, conducted by Joel Fram), pleasingly evident above the action throughout.
Consciously reminiscent of Alice, Bobbie ducks and dives to negotiate an alienating wonderland of Christie’s different-sized spaces, the habitats of the not-necessarily-happy couples first seen as a chorus serenading her on her birthday.
Bobbie is often invited by friends seeking to pair her off, or simply to act as a buffer between warring partners like Mel Giedroyc’s Sarah and Gavin Spokes’ Harry (both excellent). He’s promised to stay on the wagon, she to stay off the calories. Both though have secret stashes and make sport of sniping at, undermining and contradicting each other. They embody one of Company’s signature numbers, ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, a mercilessly ironic anatomy of what makes “perfect relationships” led by Joanne (Patti Lupone), the oldest and most cynical of Bobbie’s friends.
“It's not so hard to be married, it's much the simplest of crimes. It’s not so hard to be married,” chorus the couples. “I've done it three or four times,” drawls Joanne. She knows of what she speaks as she has current husband, the devoted eye candy Larry (perfect Ben Lewis) on her arm. A stunning Lupone plays Joanne with devastating precision, above all later in the show in the sharp and bitter paean to ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’.
The couples run the gamut of relationship stages from engaged to divorcing in a perfect composite anatomy of marriage and every performance here counts 100%, from Daisy Maywood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter contemplating divorce to Alex Gaumont’s Paul, the Jewish bridegroom about to tie the knot with long-term partner Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie (originally Amy). This is perhaps the most triumphant of the ‘gender reassignments’ here. With precise diction Bailey brilliantly shares his reservations and mounting hysteria at the prospect of the imminent marriage ceremony in show-stopping patter number ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’. It works especially well in 2018 as the choirgirl (here Daisy Maywood’s Susan) who warbles an ever more jaundiced “hymn” to the bridegrooms could now credibly be a woman priest or rabbi.
Equally, ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’, originally an Andrews Sisters’ pastiche sung by Bobby’s three current girlfriends, works perfectly for the three guys Bobbie is dating, Andy (Richard Fleeshman), Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young) and PJ (George Blagden). To PJ goes the glory of leading ‘Another Hundred People’, Sondheim’s anatomy of loneliness in the Big Apple (“it’s a city of strangers”); and Fleeshman is delicious as sweet, sexy and nice-but-dim air steward Andy, seeking to steal from Bobbie’s bed to fly to ‘Barcelona’, in another stand-out reimagined number.
Liam Steel’s beautifully graphic choreography illustrates every number and Elliott’s direction is faultless. The show’s run has already been extended, so there’s no excuse not to go and enjoy it – “three or four times” even, as Joanne would undoubtedly advise.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Brinkoff/Mogenburg
Company runs until Saturday 30 March 2019. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £79.50-£124.50. Gielgud Theatre, W1D 6AR. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/theatres/gielgud-theatre