Watermill Theatre, Newbury – until 16 September 2017
The enchanted narrative of A Little Night Music sees the summer night famously smiling three times: once upon the young, again upon the foolish and finally, upon the old. With Paul Foster’s production can now be added a fourth smile, the one that falls upon an extraordinarily talented musical theatre company.
Alongside his musical supervisor and arranger Sarah Travis, Foster has seen this most lush of Stephen Sondheim’s scores (all in waltz-time, to the cognoscenti) reduced to the demands of an actor-musician company, yet retaining all of the original’s magic. It is understood that Sondheim only agreed to his compositions being so arranged if the work was to be carried out by Travis – and one can but hope that in the next few weeks the man himself will hop across the Atlantic to enjoy her remarkable adaptation. Unusually for www.jonathanbaz.com, the paragraphs that follow are as much a review as they are, quite simply, a roll call of excellence.
Josefina Gabrielle and Alastair Brookshaw lead the show’s coterie of romantic fools with their Desiree Armfeldt and Fredrik Egerman respectively. Gabrielle is perfection as the much-desired actress, maintaining a poise and presence that is both elegant and seductive. Passionate lover, absent mother and truculent daughter, Gabrielle nails them all tackling the hilarious irony of The Glamorous Life (as well as the delicious comedy of You Must Meet My Wife) perfectly. The show’s fame is probably eclipsed by that of its torch song, Send In The Clowns which since the 1970s has been many a diva’s hallmark. Gabrielle takes this most challenging of numbers, making it her own. Her understanding of the lyrics’ undulating nuance is crystal clear and in the song’s pre-finale reprise, the pathos is as heartbreaking as it is inspirational.
Brookshaw’s Egerman is a masterclass of pitch-perfect acting through song, his choral training bringing an elegant crispness to the role that is rarely seen. Egerman is a man capable of the most bungling ineptitude alongside the purest of passions and imbued by Sondheim with some of the wittiest moments in the canon. Brookshaw, the most talented of tenors, plays the role wonderfully, convincing in his undying love for Desiree.
The quartet of fools is completed by Alex Hammond’s Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Phoebe Fildes as his wife, the Countess Charlotte. Hammond’s clipped dragoon is a monstrous misogynist, filled with testosterone and a misplaced bravado in place of brains. His is a man and husband that is simply too awful to believe, while visually, his muscular physique alongside Brookshaw’s diminutive frame only adds to the evening’s wit.
Of course, behind the Count’s braggadocio lies a deeply damaged wife and Fildes depicts Charlotte’s agony in a piercingly poignant Every Day A Little Of Death. Sondheim ensures however that any sympathy for the Countess is short-lived as she evolves into a scheming seductress, out to win her husband back irrespective of who she tramples upon (or who is even, potentially, shot!) Fildes’ squeal of delight as her husband, finally, becomes a tiger “for her” is spot-on, while her increasing dismay as the first half’s closing number A Weekend In The Country plays out, is comedy gold. [And note too that as act one, pre-interval closers go, they don’t get much better than the treat that is this multi-part harmonic confection!)
And then there is the genius that is Dillie Keane, an actress who’s surely spent her life preparing for the dowager role of Madame Armfeldt. Her lines are minimal but Keane captures the grande-dame’s witty, loving irascibility to a tee. In the first half her take on the reminiscences of Liaisons is a treat, while in the finale, without a trace of mawkish sentimentality she holds us in the palm of her hand as the summer night finally smiles upon the old.
The youth of the tale are played by Lucy Keirl as Anne, Frederik’s wife of 11 months and young enough to be his daughter, Benedict Salter as Fredrik’s troubled son Henrik, grappling with the conflicting desires of a burning lust and a commitment to the priesthood, and Tilly-Mae Millbrook as Desiree’s illegitimate daughter Fredrika. All three capture their roles’ responsibilities with an immaculate craft. Keirl’s anguished bride, still virginal, defines Anne’s complex combination of youthful innocence with feminine intuition and we believe in her throughout. Salter’s Henrik is sensational – gifted with some stunning solo moments (alongside some outstanding cello work) he brims with an angst and self-doubt that, when his pent-up love finally spills, only offers yet another of the evening’s many highlights. Millbrook is every inch the wide-eyed teenager. A girl who’s wise beyond her years, her Fredrika is both a loving granddaughter and a knowing companion to her mother.
As the audience are left stunned by Send In The Clowns, another of Sondheim’s master strokes is to send in the Egermans’ maid Petra, to swirl her skirts in the red-blooded whirl that is The Miller’s Son. Christina Tedders steps up to the part with a palpable passion as she brings Matt Flint’s choreography to life. Tedders delights throughout the show with her one-liners and truly makes the most of this cracking song.
The show’s chorus of Liebeslieders, often unsung heroes, are essential to a strong A Little Night Music and here Rachel Dawson, Alexander Evans, Alice Keedwell and Neil Macdonald bring a vocal magic (alongside a musical talent that pervades the entire ensemble) that seamlessly shifts both time and location – and again one witnesses excellent work from Flint.
Tom Marshall’s sound design is stunning. Every word and note is audible, with sound effects subtly blended in to enhance the suspension of our disbelief. Alongside in the creative team, David Woodhead’s ingenious design of distressed grandeur captures the fading elegance of a Sweden long since disappeared. Hugh Hudson’s lighting work is yet another sensation – for a show that’s set in “perpetual twilight” Hudson cleverly suggests the Northern midsummer sun.
In what is quite probably the best musical to have recently opened in the UK, one can only hope that the summer night can smile once more and perhaps see the show transfer to the wider audience it deserves. Until then, head to Newbury and the Watermill’s manicured lawns. A Little Night Music is truly unmissable musical theatre.
Runs until 16th September
Photo credit: Philip Tull