Company

 

The Queens Theatre, London, Matinee Sunday 7 November 2010

 

Review by Emma Shane, © November 2010

 

This concert staging largely involves the cast who appeared in the show some fifteen years ago at the Donmar Warehouse reprising their roles. However, there have been a few replacements along the way, resulting in the surprising appearances of Haydn Gwynne, Gillian Bevan, and Summer Strallen.

Opening with the title song Company finds most of the company on stage in a group. Apart from the obvious, our leading man Adrian Lester, a few others stand out, notably: Clive Rowe (because he is one of those performers who generally does), Haydn Gwynne (possibly because she is the tallest of the woman), and mysteriously distinctive woman in a sparkling silver-coloured dress. Sitting a long way back (row P) of the stalls, makes it difficult to spot individuals, and at first I wondered could it be Anna Francolini?

On to meeting the first of the showís couples. Sarah and Harry played by their original Donmar pairing of Rebecca Front and Clive Rowe. This gets the show off to a good start, he has a drink problem and she a food problem.

Presently we move on to the next couple Susan and Peter, also played by their original Donmar pairings of Clare Burt and Gareth Snook. Of the first three couples introduced their performance seemed to be the one that made the least impact. Clareís role of a sensitive woman who is apt to faint at the merest thing seems a world away from her Sondheim work at The Bridewell (as Senora Fosca in Passion Ė which she reprised for that theatreís farewell concert). Susan and Peter are on the point of deciding to get divorced, but ďhavenít told anyone yetĒ. Their lines have a certain amount of comedy to them, if only the actors had delivered them a little more memorably.It must be very strange for the actors to be replaying roles they did fifteen years ago, for some of them a lot of water must surely have flowed under the bridge since then. The third couple, Jenny and David, make more of an impact. This time we donít have the original Domar pairing (of Liza Sadovy and Teddy Kempner), instead we have the woman in the silver dress, who turns out to be Gillian Bevan, teamed with Richard Henders. These two certainly make an impression, or at least Gillian does, playing the part of a woman who is stoned (and doesnít realise it).

Interspersed with this action are of course the wonderful classic songs. So many of them are ones we recognise from their numerous out of context performances in revues and charity galas. Haydn Gwynne tackles the first of these The Little Things You do Together with aplomb. She sings the lyrics with excellent diction. She is ablely backed up by the rest of the company, but it is she who makes this song very much her own, no matter who one has heard do it! Which given that that numberís previous sensational interpreters include Liz Robertson (in the 1999 Chelmsford production of Side By Side By Sondheim), and Louise Gold (in the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala), that is no mean feat. Clive Rowe, Richard Henders, and, Paul Bentley have a slightly easier task with the little known ballad Sorry, Grateful. Then itís on to an extraordinary performance of another classic You Could Drive A Person Crazy. Iíve seen a few good performances of this song, but never one quite like this. Kathy played by Summer Strallen is supposed to be taking the role of Maxine, the leader of The Andrews Sisters. But somehow it is Anna Francolini as Marta (who is supposed to be, I think Patty) who actually dominates the number. Yes indeed Summer Strallen (one of The Langfords) was actually upstaged! Outshone by Anna Francolini! Meanwhile Katherine Kingsley, a long leggy blond playing April (presumably representing Laverne) barely got much of a look in, other than being an ensemble player. It may be noted that Anna is the only one of the trio who was actually in the Donmar production. Fifteen years ago the other two probably were not even working as grown up actors (though Summer Strallen was almost certainly working as child actress).

The rather little known Have I Got A Girl For You is put across well by all five men Clive Rowe, Gareth Snook, Richard Henders, Michael Simkins, and, Paul Bentley. Noticeably it is the older men Michael Simkins and Paul Bentley who come across best in it.

Adrian Lester gets to sum things up and reply to them with a song done a fair amount out of context Someone Is Waiting. Itís really good to hear this done for once in context, with the lyrics sung very clearly, as this means we actually realise that all the female names mentioned in it are in fact the names of Robertís married female friends, or the wives of his male friends.

On to another great classic number, often done in revues and galas Another Hundred People. Given how often it is done, and frequently done pretty well, it could be tough for any actress to actually make it truly her own. But this afternoon that is exactly what happens. Anna Francolini delivers this classic sensationally. Pouring her considerable experience of singing Sondheim into it. With her great stage presence, excellent singing voice, and overall talent she makes this number quite rightly one of the high spots of the evening, and gets great applause. In between parts of this song the other two girls from the trio also encounter Robert, with Marta meeting him last, only once she has finished the song. Itís an extraordinary song. Marta is an extraordinary woman, and this afternoon she is expertly played. A true triumph for Anna Francolini. One cannot forget that fifteen years ago, her performance in this show earned her recognition she might not otherwise have attained. (Things like getting a model locomotive partly named after her!).

Getting Married Today is yet another of those songs from Company that keeps turning up out of context in revues, so it makes a refreshing change to see it done totally in context. Although some of the out-of-context performances have put ingenious twists on the song (Remember the obvious ďconditionĒ of the ďbrideĒ in the 1999 Chelmsford production of Side By Side By Sondheimís performance of this number). This afternoon Sophie Thompsonís performance is clearly helped by the fact that she is one of the original members of the Donmar cast. Though I found her a little irritating she was convincing as ďcrazy AmyĒ, and delivers the major portions of this song perfectly satisfactorily, and up to speed. Michael Simkins seems to have aged somewhat, nevertheless this brings a certain something to the number, making Paul appear clearly rather older than Amy, which is no bad thing, it serves as a good contrast to the couple, and helps to make the whole situation between Amy and Paul more convincing, including adding to Amyís concern a little later when Paul goes out in the rain. Michael Simkins is a reliable actor, and this afternoon he sings his part of this number well, with perhaps just a stylistic hint of David Kernan about his performance. However the most outstanding performance of this number comes from someone who wasnít in the Donmar production. Gillian Bevan as Jenny proves to be a commanding narrator for the song. A quite different performance to her appearance earlier in the act, sharply contrasting with when Jenny was stoned. Iíve heard a few good singers perform this part (including most notably Liz Robertson, Rebecca Lock, and Kirsty Hoiles), yet Gillian Bevan proves she is certainly up there with the very best of them on this song. I think her performance might actually be the best one Iíve come across of that part in the song.

Getting Married Today is something of a potential showstopper. One of the few problems with Sondheim musicals is that frequently leading actors are too often required to try and follow on from potential showstoppers, which perhaps explains that excellent though Adrian Lester is, his performance of Marry Me A Little does not make quite perhaps the impact it might have done had it not come so soon after Getting Married Today. By now the first act is beginning to drag, and I was just trying to remember whether or not Company actually has an interval (well Assassins doesnít have one, and Follies was not originally intended to have one). Fortunately however Company yields to convention and has an interval. Just as well because it being such a disjointed piece can make is a little tedious, even though it is stunningly well performed. Also I very much wanted to study the programme, so as to get a better of idea of who I was actually watching in which part.

 

Act 2 opens with a brief sort of recap of key points that have gone before, or is it another birthday celebration? Itís not clear. I did however notice that while most of the couples were clearly paired together; with: Sarah & Harry slightly to stage right of centre, Joanne & Larry in the centre, Amy & Paul a little slightly to stage left of centre. Jenny & David to the back of stage left, almost hidden from view at time; we find Susan and Peter clearly separate on opposite sides of the stage (with Peter to stage right and Susan to stage left). Here we get a number which could almost be a grand finale, a near showstopper, so itís kind of strange to have it positioned so early in the act. But that is typical of Sondheim musicals, to break with convention by putting numbers exactly where they best serve the plot, rather than the structure of a stage musical. (A similar thing occurs in Merrily We Roll Along, when Gussieís big production number Good Thing Going practically opens Act 2). So here in Company we have the original version of two songs which have become standards, often used as the finale of many a Sondheim revue or gala, and indeed even gave the most enduring revue of them all itís name. Yes its Side By Side / What Would We Do Without You. This number is such a standard; it would just fall flat on a special occasion if the company did not liven it up a bit. Fortunately director Jamie Lloyd and musical director Gareth Valentine have made sure that it is done justice. In the middle of the number all the company suddenly turn to face the back, focusing attention on the orchestra in general, and Gareth Valentine in particular, who works up quite a bit of dancing with his conducting. His solo over the company all turn back to face the audience and continue the song. The company repeat this a second time for another shorter instrumental (but this time without the conductor going completely manic). During these turns as the cast relinquished and then regained command of the audience, I particularly noticed the striking manner in which Haydn Gwynne turned, and to a lesser extent Gillian Bevan. Both ladies have good command of the stage this afternoon. Towards the end of the number, there are some more surprises. At a certain cue in the orchestration one or other of the couples executes a little tap dance (possibly a time step). first up Sarah and Harry. Some while later Joanne and Larryís turn Yes Michael Simkins and Haydn Gwynne tap dancing! they are swiftly followed by Susan and Peter, where despite being at opposite ends of the stage Clare Burt and Gareth Snook appear well synchronised. Finally the main verses of the number conclude with Adrian Lester delivering the last line ďJust what you usually doĒ, and then of course everyone goes into the reprise of Side By Side.One thing which struck me seeing the original version of this classic pair of numbers was to notice that the lyrics do not appear to have been altered as much as I thought they were, when the song was turned into the finale of Side By Side By Sondheim. Although Robertís line in the song is usually altered for productions of Side By Side By Sondheim, with the notable exception of the Thirtieth Anniversary performance, where they put Robertís line back in, and had it given perhaps the most memorable delivery itís ever got. Which has the unfortunate effect that no performance of this line in any gala can quite match that!Oh well, on with Company.

One of the problems with classic show stopping numbersis that they are so difficult to follow. Here it is followed by perhaps the least well known number in the entire score, Poor Baby. Is this ever done outside of Company? I donít think so. Fortunately we have such excellent ladies as Gillian Bevan and Haydn Gwynne among the ladies, as well as Clare Burt. But even so, in among so many well known songs the number fails to make much impression.

On to another great classic. Now it is long leggy blond Katherine Kingsleyís turn to tackle a number that a few musical theatre actresses have declined to do in galas, apparently because it is so associated with Julia McKenzie (with the result that Julia McKenzie was practically obliged to do it in the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala). I think the last time I saw this number done on stage was when it was given a hilarious performance in TheatreMADís Flaunt It 2008 gala, by two musical comedy performers who I can only describe as a right pair of muppets. A contrast to this afternoon, where it is done entirely seriously. The number is of course Barcelona. Oh yes Katherine Kingsley and Adrian Lester do of course sing it perfectly well. This is one song which even when done out of context is usually more or less given its context, all the same its still good to see it actually in the show from whence it came.

Robert encounters a drunken Joanne, alone while Larry is apparently cavorting on the dance floor. (We have to use our imaginations here). The scene, and Joanneís classic number The Ladies Who Lunch, which comes in the middle of it, reminds me that on the whole I am not keen on stage drunk acts. Although Haydn Gwynne is an excellent actress, and plays the part pretty well, she is impressive, somehow I just didnít really like it. But then Iíve seen very few drunk acts on stage that I actually did like (one from Louise Plowright in The World Goes Round, and several from Louise Gold including most recently in Darling Of The Day). Indeed perhaps part of the difficulty I had in watching Haydnís performance today is that after Louise Goldís tour de force (of Not On Your Nellie) in Darling Of The Day any stage drunk act was going to be a bit of a come down. However, just because I didnít particular like it doesnít mean it wasnít good. Haydn Gwynne is a fine actress, and her singing of The Ladies Who Lunch was very well done, with excellent diction. She is a good performer, who is clearly well able to tackle Sondheim. Itís certainly a treat to see a performer of her calibre in the Elaine Stritch/Sheila Gish role.

Finally Adrian Lester along with the company sing the poignant final number Being Alive. After which they all took their bows.

Well that should be the end of the show. But the cast had all done such a terrific job the audience, most of which was on its feet couldnít stop applauding. So the cast came on for a second bow. Or rather half of them, led by Anna Francolini came on from stage right, but the half from stage left took a while to appear, leaving Ms Francolini looking most bemused in the middle of the stage, until they finally appeared and everyone could bow together, and eventually retreat.

All in all a very special concert performance of Company. It was a terrific idea to try and reunite as many of the Donmar cast as possible. Adrian Lester, was a true star. Clare Burt and Gareth Snook were certainly interesting, in a couple of somewhat ironic roles. Best of all it is a thrill and a pleasure to see Anna Francolini relive the show that fifteen years ago first marked her out as one of the countryís excellent stalwart Sondheim performers. But of course fifteen years is a long time, and not everyone could be brought back for the show. However, the substitutes were generally good and seemed to fit in will with the rest of the cast. Gillian Bevan was quite amazing. The only other time I have seen her on stage was at the Regentís Park 70th Anniversary Gala, where she was very overshadowed. This afternoon she demonstrates what a fine steady musical theatre performer she is. Not exactly the kind of performer who would necessarily set the stage alight. But the sort of person who is very useful and necessary to musical theatre. A performer who can get the job done to a reasonable standard. By shear coincidence Iíve been reading up about her recently (and listening to her Wizard Of Oz recording), so itís nice to see her perform on stage, and do such a fine performance. Itís also great to see Haydn Gwynne on stage, Iíve only seen her on stage once before, and that was in a Shakespeare play. She certainly proved this afternoon that she can sing Sondheim rather well. Letís hope she does that more often.

Yes this matinee concert staging of Company is a performance to remember. And special thanks to that wonderful institution of a shop that is Dress Circle for their foresight in having one of their ĎTheatre Eveningsí to see it.

 

 

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