Saturday 31 January 2015

A Little Night Music - Review

Palace Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Alastair Knights

The company of A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music is inspired by the Swedish writer/director Ingmar Bergmans’s whimsical movie Smiles of a Summer Night, that tells of the midsummer night smiling three times. The first smile falling upon the young, the second upon the foolish and the final smile, upon the old. On a chilly January evening in London, the midwinter’s night actually smiled for a fourth time, upon the city itself, by gracing the Palace Theatre with this show. First mounted in Guildford some 18 months ago Parker and Knight’s interpretation of this Tony-winner remains an absolute treat.

Typically, reviews on this site are short in length – a show is running and a review needs to be published asap. This time round however A Little Night Music was a one-off and the tickets (all sold-out on the night) are gone. So what follows here is a lengthier than normal commentary, focussing upon the various components of this charming chamber production. 

The Liebeslieders, effectively a Greek (Swedish?) chorus set the tone for the night. Dotted around the auditorium and loggia, their Overture leading into the Night Waltz was delicious. Notes, often a capella, were spot on with a simply spine-tingling vocal purity. Top work all round throughout the show from Jenna Boyd, Michael Colbourne, Emma Harrold, Nadim Naaman and Laura Tebbutt.

Frederik and Ann Egerman were played by David Birrell and Anna O'Byrne. Birrell’s bumblingly philanderous Egerman nailed the hapless everyman who finds his world populated by not so much grotesques, as extremes. Birrell’s vocal work did the job and he proved a worthy partner in his character’s various duets. O'Byrne’s Ann however was a gifted creation. A young woman barely still a child, terrified by/revulsed at the thought of consummating her marriage to Frederik (who of course is old enough to be her father). O'Byrne managed the complex combination of fear, manipulation and outright lustful passion for Frederik’s son Henrik perfectly. Her magical soprano tone belied her talent and with a supreme understatement, O'Byrne gloriously realised the comic potential of her character.

The three generations of the Armfeldt family form an axis around which the story hangs. Young Bibi Jay as the teenage Frederika Armfeldt was a confident performer, able to hold her own amongst a company of stars. Anne Reid, an accomplished actress most famous for her film and TV work set a measured tone as the matriarchal Mme Armfeldt, with her caustic one-liners delivered deliciously and her solo number Liaisons being salaciously convincing. Reid’s character dies as the show ends and unless one knew this beforehand, the death was hard to discern. When all the principal characters are sat on stage throughout, mute and frozen as is the demand of such a chamber-styled piece, then director Knights needed to have done more to highlight such a key moment.

The focal character of A Little Night Music of course is fading actress Desiree Armfeldt, the true love interest of Frederk Egerman and played again, as in Guildford, by Janie Dee. Desiree is a tough role made even more challenging by having to sing Send In The Clowns, a number that is arguably bigger than any actress. Dee was good as Desiree capturing that charm of femininity that defined her desirability and her Send In The Clowns was undoubtedy a celebration of coherent magnificence. But re-visiting notes from Guildford, even there the show was dazzled by the performances of O'Byrne and (see below) Joanna Riding. When there are “outstanding” performers in a company, to be just “good” is not good enough and Knights again needed to have done more to address this. In footballing parlance, he should have put his arm around Dee’s shoulder and coaxed that little bit extra from her, lord knows she has it in her tank to give. It was barely two years ago that Dee's Dolly Levi at Leicester’s Curve wowed the critics and deservedly earned her yet another gong. Maybe next time.

The real bittersweet highlight of this show though comes from the adulterous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and his wife the Countess Charlotte. In Guildford these parts had been played by Simon Bailey and Joanna Riding where both were sensational. This time around Riding returned but Bailey was replaced by Jamie Parker. Parker is currently in the middle of a 7-show week stint in Sondheim’s Assassins, so expectations surrounding his performance were mixed as to how much he may have been able to give to the Count. Any such anxieties were misplaced. Parker reached for the bar set by Bailey and smashed it. His Count being both menacing and hilarious, with a presence in all scenes that demanded attention and delivered a flawless singing voice. Parker’s take on In Praise Of Women filled the Palace’s cavernous space with whoops of audience delight.

As in Guildford Jo Riding’s Countess was, again, a masterclass in musical theatre. Riding knows the show of old, having played Ann some twenty years ago in Sean Mathias’ production at the National Theatre. Her mastery of Charlotte’s ingenious complexity was a sight to behold – poise, voice and movement all flawless – an actress perfectly suited to the role in terms of age and ability. Pray that this show returns and with Riding in it – she’s already won two Oliviers in her career and this performance deserves to have earned her a third.

Henrik, played by Fra Free was the necessary cauldron of repressed desire, struggling to contain the passionate love he fees for his stepmother. Fee got the angst just right.

The housemaid to the Egermans is Petra, wise beyond her years and a knowingly sensous flame of a woman, very sexual and with not much to sing in the show until her 11 o’clock number The Miller’s Son. Reprising the role from Guildford, Laura Pitt-Pulford was, as one would expect from this leading actress of her generation, outstanding. Throwing herself into the song in one of the most passionately choregoraphed solo routines of the night. It’s only a pity that Sondheim didn’t give Petra more songs.

So much for the actors – What about the musicians? Alex Parker musically directed meticulously, commanding a sumptuously furnished orchestra of 28 players. One can only speculate as to what favours he had called in to amass such orchestral excellence, but as Parker confided over a glass of post-show bubbly, there were several West End orchestra pits lacking a handful of talented players that night! The show’s score is rich in melodies that feature, brass, strings, wood and percussion at different moments and Parker’s orchestra did not disappoint. Truly a class act.

Parker and Knights have now presented this show twice. They need to do it again – and for a longer run too, for London (or a regional venue) deserves nothing less than to feast upon this groaning smorgasbord of talent. Knights may still have work to do, but as and when this show comes round again, don’t miss it!

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