Review: Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’. Gielgud Theatre. London.

Stephen Sondheim’s original urban and urbane show Company was held to be a musically theatrical comment on the sexual revolution of the 1960/70s and set in New York. Company was originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince in 1970. The book was written by the late George Furth. It followed the life and loves of an attractive, successful and thirty-five year old single guy named Bobby. It was Sondheim’s first clearly mature work and its popularity has led to numerous productions worldwide in a near fifty year time span. Dean Jones played the original Bobby with Elaine Stritch as Joanne.

This currently re-imagined version of Company re-worked by Stephen Sondheim and thrillingly directed by Marianne Elliott incorporates a fantastic set design by Bunny Christie and finds us in the company of New Yorker Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) – an attractive, successful and thirty-five year old single woman. Yes – a woman. Shock over – please continue reading or feel free to burst into song – and then continue reading.

Craig’s superb interpretation of the lead role is just musical theatre perfection. Her renditions of ‘Someone Is Waiting’ and ‘Marry Me A Little’ are sublime. They run the emotional gamut from doubly poignant to a terribly witty duet in ‘Barcelona’ with Richard Fleeshman as Andy the commitment phobic and sexually nervous airline pilot.

As the show ends on her exultant ‘Being Alive!’ it seems like this enraptured audience would be happy for it to start all over again, complete with spontaneous interactive whoops and rounds of applause that occur after every musical number and the penultimate, much warranted, full standing ovation. This humorously theatrical production of Company reads like a returning and deeply treasured friend has come to stay with her stories and songs of life and we never want to her to leave – ever.

This production is so totally inspired that we may never think of Bobby as a man again! Each time the pleasantly niggling ear worms sing “Bobbie, Bobbie, Bobbie we’ve been trying to call you…” the companion image with them will be of Rosalie Craig in her red dress musically considering the scary notion of settling down and/or getting married.

         … totally inspired…

Yes, the new version still puts marriage (in all its tangled stages) under a contemporary microscope and, as blisteringly accurate – and often-times hilarious – as Bobbie and her friendship/relationships are, we are reminded that Company is no light weight musical comedy nonsense but a sophisticated and reflective musical theatre for adults that never-the-less effervesces magnificently. Indeed, Marianne Elliott has expressed that she feels that her new gender swapping version still holds a mirror up to modern relationships. In working closely with Sondheim on the re-think Elliott argues that hers isn’t an ‘aggressive update or directorial corrective’ but simply allows the audience to see Company from the perspective of the present.

So Bobbie has just turned thirty-five and considers that she cannot stay in denial any longer as a woman. If she wants to settle down she allegedly needs to do something quick. But she is no simple cipher in telling the stories of her groups of friends and their attitudes on matrimony. It works on a deeper level than that.

The gender of some of the cast has changed and this decision works extremely well in this reviewer’s opinion. Company was deemed more than slightly controversial in the 1970s for its modern views on relationships and the sanctity of marriage. It is doubtful that audiences of that era would have been accepting, or even found credible, the notion of a male gay couple being shown as living together on stage – never mind a song/story about them about to be getting married. Paul is confidently and warmly played by Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie is brilliantly frantic in the show stopper number ‘Getting Married Today’. Daisy Maywood’s Susan brings the house down with her unexpected ‘Bless this day – pinnacle of life ‘ appearances as the lady vicar.

Jenny and David remain a heterosexual couple but the new story finds David (Richard Henders) as a stay at home husband and David’s lines are now those of Jennifer Saayeng as Jenny the career woman and wife. This would have been a rarity in the 1970s and even the 1980s as would their reveal about their new decision over their seemingly solid marriage. The grass smoking scene is infectiously funny and the appearance of the row of apartment doors undeniably arresting.

The original Bobby’s casual girlfriends, April, Marta and Kathy are now Bobbie’s male friends Andy (Richard Fleeshman), Theo (Matthew Seedon- Young) and PJ (George Blagden). Together they receive a huge round of applause for their well choreographed and sung version of ‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’.

Blagden’s PJ, played as a smooth talking young hip guy Englishman in New York, sings ‘Another Hundred People’ to perfection. Collectively, their male presence offers up a present day re-focus on changing male attitudes with their flaws and strengths. Times have certainly changed since the days of the 1970s.

Recent ‘Phantom’ Ben Lewis plays a likeable Larry against theatre legend Patti LuPone’s acrimonious vamp, Joanne. Although all of the Company songs are somebody’s favourite, Joanne’s ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ is pretty much at the top of the list and LuPone blows the Gielgud Theatre‘ s roof off with her powerfully wry interpretation. It’s not the first time she has played the role but surely, this must be the best. Many in this theatre audience would have happily popped their clogs knowing they have witnessed LuPones’ more than impressive acting and expressive vocals as the viperous Joanne. Larry is more of a spoken role but Lewis does get to air his golden tonsils in ‘Sorry-Grateful’ with Harry (Gavin Spokes) and David (Richard Henders) and in ‘Poor Baby’ and ‘Side By Side’.

This, of course, is a musical comedy and one of the comic highlights of the evening is watching the delicious pairing of Harry (Gavin Spokes) and Sarah (Mel Giedroyc) trying to impress their friend Bobbie with their current state of teetotalism and Sarah’s new found love of the martial arts. Their casual bickering is perfectly timed.

The whole Company ensemble work very well under Marianne Elliott’s superb direction and Liam Steel’s choreography. Their choreographed rendition of ‘Side By Side’ proves a slickly energetic knock out number.

Bunny Christies’ ever evolving and ever surprising set design and set actualisation is a modern day theatre star in its own right. Just when you think you have seen it all another surprise hits you in the eyes. We particularly loved the deliberately understated visions of the various apartments, all pared down but retaining artistic saliency. Neil Austen’s lighting design does much more than create moods. It deeply compliments Christies’ sets and carries the show forward with a compelling mix of visual isolation and orchestrally influenced optical graphics. Never has the flickering neon of the large Company sign looked so good.

Any production would be proud to have an orchestra like this awesome fifteen piece Company orchestra under orchestrator David Cullen and musical Supervisor and Conductor Joel Fram. Complimenting the music is a fine sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph Sound.

This production of Company is currently playing at London’s West End Gielgud Theatre until 22nd December 2018. East Midlands Theatre sincerely hope that the run is extended or at least given a NT Theatre type live showing in cinemas. To augment the very tasty icing on Company’s delicious cake surely a cast recording should be made of this fast selling out, historic production. When Stephen Sondheim came over to London recently to see the show he was asked what he liked about it. His answer: “Everything!!!!!”

Lie about your birthday if that is what it takes to get a ticket and do it now! You don’t have to wait until you are thirty-five or older.

Tickets available to order from LOVETHEATRE.

Gielgud Theatre official site.

Photo credit: Brinkoff/Mögenburg

Reviewer. Phil Lowe.

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Phil Lowe is a member of UK Theatre.

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