Send in the applause
Thank goodness for this. Six reviews into the year, I can finally write one dispensing with a lengthy introduction about the failings of the play under consideration. A Little Night Music, my favourite Sondheim, is a Rolls-Royce of a script and a score; urbane, elegant, the chassis of a decent plot and strong characters finished with superb lines and sumptuous musical touches. Crucially, these elements are blended together to form a coherent piece of musical theatre rather than a series of show-stoppers jutting out of a stop-start comedy. It may not be to everyone’s taste (it is rather wordy and static), but DULOG’s production had enough diesel to keep it gliding along.
Sondheim’s appropriately old-world score is draped around a carousel of romantic fools in late nineteenth-century Sweden. Fredrik Egerman’s young wife Anne refuses to sleep with him; he seeks solace and other comforts in the arms of his mistress, leading lady Desiree Armfeldt; her lover, an idiotic Count, is consumed with jealousy; his wife sees an opportunity to cut her husband down to size. For a romantic play which leans towards comedy, it carries wonderfully cynical undertones. Everyone ends up with their ‘right’ partner, but this outbreak of propriety scarcely conceals the baser instincts which precede it. Even the grand Mdm. Armfeldt, lamenting modern-day sexual mores in ‘Liaisons’, is effectively advocating only a higher class of prostitution: sex as “a pleasurable means to a measurable end”.
Blustin’s direction of the performances was also on the whole successful
Oscar Blustin wisely opted for a simple set, five white panels hanging in a semi-circle to provide varied entrance-points and a striking black-and-white colour scheme (though I wasn’t sure if the splashes of colour in certain character’s clothes actually signified anything). Costumes established the period and milieu without ostentation. The props and furniture were just detailed enough to give shape to individual scenes; the set changes were in the main slick and composed. These aspects of the production were reminiscent of Blustin’s most recent work, The Blue Room; he also provided the kind of soft lighting and subtle use of colour we’ve come to expect from him. My main criticisms of the staging concern the Quintet, a chorus who appeared at various points to comment on proceedings. They tended to be grouped together at the back of the stage, which looked impressive but meant that for the most part they were inaudible. In addition, some of their blocking was a little a little fussy, and it might have been better to have had them use the entrances at the front sides of the stage, rather than relying almost exclusively on those at the rear.
Blustin’s direction of the performances was also on the whole successful. A Little Night Music has a number of songs which I imagine pose severe challenges in terms of rhythm, pitch and lyrical dexterity. In general, the cast coped well, though some singers were clearly better than others. The leads were certainly numbered among the former. Ed Lane (Fredrik) displayed a nice sense of humour in his singing, adroitly handling Sondheim’s sung dialogue. However, as with certain other performers, he conveyed no real sense of age, apart from his deep voice. This particularly affected his scenes with Desiree, which lacked the sense of two people trying to recapture their evanescent youth (of course, this kind of scene is always difficult for actors without the fortune of having lost said youth in the first place).
Ben Whittle effortlessly brought out his character’s ridiculous indignation…
Rebecca Grosvenor-Taylor had the manner and charm of the fading beauty Desiree down to a tee. Her voice was superb throughout, but I must take issue with her performance of ‘Send in the Clowns’. Though the most famous number in the show, it occurs in a tender scene between Desiree and Fredrik, where they realise they cannot commit to each other. Grosvenor-Taylor’s exaggerated facial expressions and gestures overwhelmed the pathos which the scene required. In general, the scenes with her and Lane weren’t as successful as they might have been. I felt the sense of mutual longing and loss wasn’t brought out enough, and, in ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, some of the quick-fire humour wasn’t quite captured either.
The other main roles were filled with some excellent casting. Rebecca Collingwood was (and I hope she’ll take this in the spirit in which it is intended) perfect for a young woman aware of her own attractiveness but unsure about what to do with it, almost absent-mindedly exercising her power over her husband and his infatuated son. She displayed some particularly good chemistry with Ben Whittle, who is not usually cast as an anguished student priest, but effortlessly brought out his character’s ridiculous indignation at the world in general and his father in particular.
DULOG’s cast and crew should be congratulated for capturing so much of the suavity of Sondheim’s writing, while adding charming inclinations of their own.
Doug Gibbs as the Count had a more difficult task, since his character was skewed furthest towards caricature. The night I attended, I felt Gibbs was too inclined to follow this direction, playing it strictly for laughs. The Count is a stiff character, but Gibbs let this stifle any empathy we might possibly have felt towards him. He provided the outline of a very funny performance, but not the shading required. Niamh Murphy, playing the Countess, was all shade, garlanding her performance with a string of beautifully bitter lines but leaving enough room to bring out genuine poignancy in ‘Every Day A Little Death’. In an evening of wonderful comic moments, she provided more than anyone else, and nestled them in precise and consistent characterisation.
Kate Hunter (Mdm. Armfeld, Desiree’s mother) spoke with an authority which never seemed forced and which underscored some lovely comic delivery. However, the depiction of the character’s age was an issue, particularly as regards her death. I appreciate that playing Mdm. Armfeldt with more verisimilitude might have risked dragging her scenes, but if I hadn’t done my research (oh yes) I would have assumed she had gone a nap rather than passed away at the end. Anna Budget’s Petra neatly complemented Collingwood in her sexually playful exchanges with Whittle, and found the right poignancy in the verses of ‘The Miller’s Son’. Of the other players, Amy Annette deserves special commendation for comic over-pronunciation par excellence in the play within the play where we first meet Desiree.
I can claim no expertise in the area, but to my ears the band didn’t sound as successful as the cast. I only noticed one instance of an actor dropping lines, but on more than one occasion instruments sounded out of tune, and often there was a lack of certainty when they resumed lines. To be fair, when they worked they worked very well indeed; music that was rich but not stodgy, adding colour without confusion. In addition, the band could boast a visual effect the equal of anything seen on stage, in conductor Tim Barrow’s sightline-threatening hair.
DULOG’s cast and crew should be congratulated for capturing so much of the suavity of Sondheim’s writing, while adding charming inclinations of their own. Not every aspect was polished, but everyone knew what they were trying to do and succeeded in doing it more often than not, giving us a good production of a very good musical.