Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, and apologies for radio silence on Wednesday, but I’ve been running about a bit this week. I was in London overnight on Tuesday, then took a train up to Leeds on Wednesday, before returning for another day in London yesterday
As sometimes happens, I managed to schedule two entirely complementary shows back-to-back: on Wednesday evening I travelled to Leeds to catch the return at Leeds Playhouse of their 2021 Opera North co-production of Sondheim’s 1973 masterpiece A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (pictured above), then on Thursday afternoon I caught a student production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (Sondheim’s 1981 musical that famously flopped on its first outing, thus ending a run of triumphs for him and his favoured director Hal Prince which in the preceding decade had produced COMPANY, FOLLIES, NIGHT MUSIC, PACIFIC OVERTURES and SWEENEY TODD, each of which broke the mould of what had gone before and established Sondheim’s still unassailable dramatic and musical reputation).
Watching A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC — not in an opera house but presented by an opera company, with a 30 piece onstage orchestra — made me realise, not for the first time, that Sondheim has undoubtedly given me more pleasure than any other single creative force in my lifetime; there are new pleasures every time you see his shows too.
And Britain’s regional theatres have served him uniquely well. Indeed, in the 80s it was Manchester’s Library Theatre — in a theatre in a sports complex in Wythenshawe — that, apparently improbably, offered UK premieres for shows like FOLLIES and PACIFIC OVERTURES; that legacy was carried forward when one of the regular Manchester creative team Paul Kerryson took over the Leicester Haymarket, where among his accomplishments was doing a revised version of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in 1992 that Sondheim and Furth provided revisions for and personally supervised. (Personal sidebar note: a cast recording was made of that production, and I wrote the liner notes, pictured below).
This production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is ravishingly served with a large 30 piece onstage orchestra, a beautiful transformative set, and singing of spot-on clarity (every word counts) and operatic accomplishment. Apart from the radiant octogenarian opera legend Josephine Barstow, now 81, I didn’t know any of the Opera North cast, which is itself something quite refreshing when it comes to seeing a Sondheim show where a familiar cast of West Enders will usually appear.
As the two leads — touring actress Desiree Armfeldt and her former partner lawyer Fredrik Egerman — Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang (pictured below) poignantly chart their attempt to find “a coherent existence after years of muddle”. They are just lovely — and sing the score both longingly and lovingly.
There are also hilarious contributions from Christopher Nairne as Desiree’s dragoon lover Count Carl Magnus Malcolm and especially Helen Evora as his openly cuckolded wife Countess Charlotte (below left); and Sam Marston and Corrine Cowling as Fredrik’s son and wife (below right).
As ever, a late contribution from Amy J Payne as Petra, with her astonishing song “The Miller’s Son”, nearly steals the show. “It’s a very short day/ Till you’re stuck with just one/ Or it has to be done / On the sly,” she sings. Sondheim distils the agony of marriage to a few crisp words.
Epitomising the best of it, Josephine Barstow is a regal Madame Armfeldt, casting a wise but withering look of disdain on the dramas unfolding in her country estate. Barstow — also stunning in FOLLIES at the National Theatre as Heidi Schiller — is a Sondheim natural.
James Brining’s production runs at Leeds Playhouse to July 16 only; it was distressing on press night to see so many empty seats. And worse, to find it so woefully unsupported by actual press: I know many outlets reviewed it last year, but nevertheless the only two people covering it on Wednesday were myself and fellow blogger Carl Woodward.
Yesterday afternoon I was back in London to see MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, directed by Bruce Guthrie at the Royal Academy of Music HQ on Marylebone Road. Like Follies, this is a musical in which youthful dreams are shown to curdle and get crushed; but it famously looks back in a different way, spooling its action backwards from the present day to when the characters met, so we already know how badly it is going to turn out for them, and piece it together with the benefit of foresight.
Watching it performed by young people gives it an added poignance — and heartache, They’ve not (yet) made these adult compromises in their relationships, but that will surely come. It is a musical of haunting layers, exquisitely rendered. It’s particularly lovely to hear the full overture restored here, punchily rendered by an 18-strong pit band led yesterday by musical director Amy Hsu.
Meanwhile, from Sondheim to Bob Marley is quite a big distance — but it’s worth travelling. On Tuesday I returned to the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue, for the first time since the first night, to see GET UP! STAND UP! again.
The main reason for me was to see David Albury, the current Marley stand-by, starring in the show (pictured above). I’ve followed him ever since he played Oliver Barrett IV in Howard Goodall’s LOVE STORY at the Union Theatre, who has been steadily building a career as a leading man to watch in shows like THE LIFE at Southwark Playhouse and MOTOWN at the Shaftesbury. Now, he comes into his own in a role that he invests with true heart, grace and power. Full disclosure: I was there as a guest of his proudly supportive dad Simon, a broadcasting legend who once headed the Royal Television Society and is a friend from Twitter.
We all met for a late dinner after at Brasserie Zedel. It is always thrilling to see a performer grow in the way I’ve seen David do. He owns this role (part time, on Tuesday and Sunday evenings).
And it is wonderful to see the show become a confirmed hit, with the Lyric well populated all the way up to the balcony. Director Clint Dyer gives the show room to breathe and the actors to interact and connect with each other and the audience, honouring Bob Marley’s own famous ability to do the same. But most of all it puts Marley centre stage. As played by Albury, it’s riveting.
Seeing him also, incidentally, reveals the power of standbys and covers: you are not short-changed when you see them, but may well be seeing a star in the ascendant.
THE SEAGULL at the Harold Pinter Theatre
All of this meant I missed last night’s opening of THE SEAGULL at the Harold Pinter, a production that went into previews in 2020 at the Playhouse before the lockdown shut it down; now, two years later, it is finally here. But I’m going to have to wait a little bit longer: when the press agent didn’t respond to multiple emails in which I tried to arrange seeing it this weekend, I made other arrangements for tomorrow, and now can only schedule it at the end of July.
Reading today’s reviews, which range from two stars (Dominic Cavendish for the Daily Telegraph and Clive Davis for The Times) to five (Sam Marlowe for the i Paper), it is a production that is clearly dividing critics; that means that I will have to make up my own mind.
THE DOWNFALL OF BORIS JOHNSON
Finally, the nation has been entirely gripped by the psychodrama of a compulsive liar and narcissist finally being brought down by his own hubris; the Conservative party finally, and not before time, saw through the shameless posturing, bad faith and worse lies of their beloved leader Boris Johnson and forced his resignation yesterday. Not that even now he seems to want to go quietly, but is intent on staying in post till his successor as party leader is appointed, which may not happen until September.
This will be rich dramatic fodder for a James Graham expose in the (near?) future, though the story is far from over.
As various people now fight for the role, I loved this tweet about Rishi Sunak:
We can only hope, of course, that this spells the end not only of the worst Prime Minister in British history, according to many, but also the worst Culture Secretary in his slavishly devoted stooge Nadine Dorries.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
I’ll be back here on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends.