Gielgud Theatre, London – until 30 March 2018
There’s knowing you’ll love a show. And there’s not knowing how much you needed a show. The idea of Company with a woman was incredibly exciting. Even more so because it immediately annoyed Sondheim purist dinosaurs. To the point they were spitting venom about the end of musical theatre as we know it before even a note had been sung. And the moment it opened younger audiences who had never seen Company before similarly lamented that it could ever have been done with a man. ‘But it’s a woman’s story’. And for 2018 it is. It could only be.
Company is a chameleon of a show. Despite the insistence of some that it belongs firmly, unchanged in its 1970s box, it is, in fact, abstract enough to take on whatever it needs to. The Donmar production in the 1990s with Adrian Lester proved that. In 2006 John Doyle took it apart and showed just what else it could be. Marianne Elliott has, mathematically, changed far less than Doyle did (for those keeping score) but while she’s fundamentally changed the show, what she’s actually done is deliver the essence of it in a way that speaks to us today.
The show could be done with a man today. It could be done as written, with a nice charismatic leading man (hell we could promote Richard Fleeshman from his role as Andy and he could do it). It could be staged 70s style or even vaguely present day. And it would be a nice, solid piece of musical theatre. But with a man, as written, it wouldn’t do what Company does with Rosalie Craig in the lead, what Company should do. What it should, does do here is reach in, pull you apart and put you back together again.
Early on Company feels incredibly current, and not through any textual changes. The opening number the frantic number of friends shouting for Bobbie, each needing a bit of time, bit of attention. It wasn’t written in the age of social media and constant connection, but it could have been. It applies to anyone but there’s a particular role for the single person – particularly a woman – in a social circle that sometimes feels like everyone wants a piece of you. As Bobbie’s friends grow louder and louder all wanting something, pulling her in 10 directions at once…but with a slight feeling of emptiness that is nobody’s fault. It’s that feeling of busy, of a big group of friends, all of which at the end of the phone but still feeling alone. That’s a frighteningly modern condition.
And the point being that this re-working needs very little to feel current. For all the talk of textual changes, names and pronouns aside there’s very little. The slick modern set, which cleverly invokes the interconnectedness and claustrophobia of modern New York living, immediately gives a sense of time and place, while also being timeless. One reference to ‘I’ll text you to explain’ one visual gag of Bobbie saying she meets men ‘all the time’ while looking at her phone immediately situates the piece today with little feeling of forced change. The rest is already inherent in it. The frantic pace of life- in ‘Another Hundred People’, the clamouring of friends for attention in ‘Company’ the pace of modern dating ‘You could drive a person crazy’. Everything that is in the text translates to a contemporary setting. More so, when told through the lens of a woman.
And of course, Bobbie’s dates. Or who she dates, are a key element in this re-imagining. From PJ the Hipster boy who is clearly a mistake for most people. The man who knows it all and is cooler than everyone. But who you date anyway, because he’s there. A great framing device in ‘Another Hundred People’ he seems to morph into all the bad dates, all hundred or more you might go through to get to something else.
And then there’s Andy. Probably a favourite for many reasons in Richard Fleeshman’s incarnation. If staged in the original incarnation today, the stupid, probably blonde, Air Hostess shamelessly pulled to bed by Bobbie becomes actually if not actively sinister in tone, then certainly not endearing. Switched it becomes a delicious commentary on gender expectation and female gaze. And Elliott plays to that. Andy is in fact charming, if as the text says, not bright. But he’s endearing, sweet and (ahem) generous in the way he’s seen to treat Bobbie. What Elliott does with the scene however is a masterstroke. Firstly, there’s the power play at work. Bobbie, as the woman, holds all the sexual power over Andy and he seems happy with the arrangement. Secondly, for the audience Elliott has Fleeshman in all his gym-honed glory, spend much of the scene in a pair of very small pants. Both a play on, and strike to, every girl who has had to stand in her underwear on stage for no real reason. It’s deliciously self-aware and funny (right down to a perfectly timed thumbs up) and a perfect re-write of the Bobbie as bachelor existence.
Integrated into this scene is ‘Tick Tock’, an often-cut piece which again, works masterfully in the switch. As Bobbie is in the midst of her charming-yet-dull date with Andy she starts imagining a life with him. Cleverly staged in how we see it Elliott’s staging plays on the idea that when you’re single you imagine falling in love 20 times a day (or lust depending on the time of day). More seriously the fact that perhaps women in particular run the ‘what if’ scenario with every new date. And cleverly staged, integrated with the now somewhat hilarious date, we see that. It’s also crucially the only time reference to Bobbie’s biological clock is made overtly- and this is to Elliott’s credit. It would be easy to heavy handily labour that point (pun intended). In fact, by not saying it for much of the production Elliott mirrors reality: it’s an always unspoken element for women. Whether you want babies or not, your own and other people’s expectation of the matter looms either in the background, or ever larger across life as a woman. Elliott doesn’t need to stage it more than once; it’s already there.
Marriage is the mantra that looms large in Company. And perhaps that’s the element that makes it feel dated to some. The idea that we’re ‘over’ marriage. That it’s not an issue. Ask a woman that question. Because even if she doesn’t want to get married, even if in the abstract society has ‘moved on’. She won’t feel that. And as this production highlights the idea of Marriage is still one fraught with conflict at times. In a particularly clever bit of recasting the ‘Not Getting Married Today’ number is given to Jonathan Baily, one half of the only gay couple in the piece. And it raises questions of marriage as an institution that would be difficult to address in the traditional female casting.
Jonathan Bailey’s tour de force performance of ‘Not Getting Married’ is something to behold on stage. There’s no denying the skill and energy in its execution. But it’s easy to overlook the depth of that performance. ‘Not Getting Married’ re-written as a man questioning his marriage to another man is one of the most intelligent moves, and necessary re-writes. As a woman singing it, the piece would undermine much of what Bobbie and this re-staging stands for. But in giving it to a gay character it opens up the song to something new, and some really interesting and difficult questions for contemporary audiences. Bailey captures well the confusion associated with those, especially of this generation of 30 somethings, who grew up gay and told marriage wasn’t for them. Only to be ‘gifted’ with the institution as adults. How to reconcile that with the gay/Queer identity you’ve grown up with? Should you be ‘buying in’ to heteronormative society, conforming to traditions, and how to do that in a same-sex relationship? All those coupled with natural wedding day jitters come spilling out in Bailey’s performance, and as much as it’s funny and frenetic, there’s an underlying sadness a reminder that even in 2018 things aren’t that easy for gay couples always. The scene resolves however with something that is the essence of Company- seeking out connection and love in whatever form. When Jamie runs out with Paul’s umbrella it’s that act of kindness, love and compassion that is the underscore of what Company wants us to look for.
And underneath the wit and the fun, that’s what Bobbie is looking for, and telling us. And it’s a difficult and complicated thing for a woman. There’s not a moment- and Elliott and Craig are careful to craft this- that she’s unhappy with who she is and how she lives her life. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about that balance of being happy with that, but also that there’s nothing wrong with longing for more.
The staging of ‘Marry me a little’ and ‘Being Alive’ mirror each other. And it’s a perfect bookending of the piece. It’s also Elliott being intelligent and instinctive about the material- knowing when to let it speak for itself. But also, a strong message to the audience on listening when a woman is talking. Both these numbers are our insights into Bobbie’s mind. Nobody else is on stage, she’s talking to herself, and to us. It becomes now an insight into the conflict of, and honesty inside her-and the women in the audience who share those sentiments-mind.
In Marry me a Little (a grossly misused at weddings song) we see Bobbie defeated. Resigned. It’s a combination, seeing Jamie and Pauls’ wedding, the sadness of being rejected as a ‘back up’ by Jamie. The thought that if everyone else is, can, wants to well maybe that’s the way. Barely a woman alive hasn’t had that moment- be it for marriage or simply opting for a relationship that’s less than ideal just for a sense of a moment’s piece from everyone else, from ourselves. Because we feel we should. That perhaps it would all be easier if we just got married. More than that though, Bobbie in that moment isn’t ready. Doesn’t understand what she wants. As so many can empathise, the desire to ‘want something’ but not yet knowing what that something is. And as a woman the instinct- the need to remain a little guarded, to hold back. To just want to marry someone a little. Just in case.
Meanwhile ‘Being Alive’ is a masterclass in the complexities of love and life as a woman today. Having just looked into the mirror of Patti LuPone’s masterclass in musical theatre that is ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ Bobbie seems haunted by the vision. And her version of Being Alive- again stripped back to her alone on stage, becomes a conflict between what she resolutely believes she is not, does not want. And what she is afraid of being.
Craig starts off cynical, mocking even of the ideas she sings about. You get the sense of the walls long built by any woman in their 30s. For women those ‘so many reasons for not being with someone’ can be complex, difficult, and as it happens very very different for those of a man. And Craig delivers this. And then cleverly segues into the heart of the song- and the musical- about figuring out what you want, but on your terms. And about being able to admit that to yourself. It would be easy to be reductive in a female led version, that yes Bobbie ‘wakes up’ and ‘opens that door’ to marriage and all is well. Luckily Elliott and Craig are both more nuanced in that. Yes, Craig delivers us a heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Being Alive’ full of heart and longing. But it’s not longing for a sudden revelation that marriage and children are the answer. It’s a longing for what the answer might be. It would be easy to belt out a life-affirming rendition. To pretend there was some divine revelation. Instead Craig moves from cynicism to bewilderment. Asking, rather than telling, and never really settling on an answer. Because life is more complicated. And for a lot of women it’s more complicated than simply ‘want something’ or ‘want what your friends want you to want’.
Despite that complex, almost grief filled rendition, Elliott gives Bobbie a defiant ending. One that suggests, maybe, Being Alive is exactly what you make of. And indeed, take control of. Even for a moment. And that’s enough.
Because Company sort of has one, and that other recent play of Elliott’s has one. And because this Company requires the kind of personal response only this can give.
I knew I’d love this production. I didn’t know how much I needed it. I didn’t know how much it would mean to feel so, for want of a less cliché description ‘seen’.
Women aren’t allowed to doubt, even in 2018 that they want marriage ‘and all that’. We aren’t trusted when we say we’ve ‘looked at all that’. And nobody believes us that it’s more complicated than all that.
What I saw in Company was a woman like me. A woman with many friends, a woman who dates. A woman who is busy and often pulled in 10 different directions at once by those friends all wanting a piece of her. But also, a woman a little left out. A little left out for not fitting the mould.
When you’re not married, and over 30, people start leaving you out. They leave you out of events. They leave you out of conversations because you ‘wouldn’t understand.’ I know every week there are dinners, and brunches and who knows what else I’m not invited to because you need to come as a pair to be invited. The most upsetting part of watching Company was sitting there thinking ‘they’re going to leave her’ not of the men, but of her friends. I’ve been the fun almost ‘pet’ like single friend, invited along for a laugh. But there’s a sense as time progresses of novelty running out. Of the fear of being told outright (as I have) ‘I can’t talk to you, because you aren’t married’ or ‘I’m only really having Mothers in my life now’. And so you question, do I join them? Whether I want that, want ‘him’ or not? Just to not be alone? Or do I stick to who I am, and risk that, being alone. Not even risk, just wake up one day and find its happened.
And it’s not, like Bobbie that I’ve been resisting marriage- or whatever. But the line that cut most deep were those about being busy with other things. For Bobbie, for me, there were just always other things. And I don’t know honestly some days if that makes me happy or sad.
What Company did, was recognise that. To show we aren’t all just waiting around for Prince Charming to fix things. And even if he did, would we recognise him? Show him the door? Be just too busy? Or would we even be happy anyway? Would we, have we, missed our Theo? Could we or should we be happy with an Andy (I mean for more than a night, we could all enjoy him for a night). Or even PJ? Are we being, as our friends frequently say ‘too fussy’? Or should in fact we stay busy, do the things that make us happy, and have standards? Because after all we are pretty great- as Bobbie is too great- to waste it on those men. Or are we? And so it goes.
Being a woman has always been complex. And in 2018 no more so. With more rights than ever, but also lagging behind still. With freedom to be who we are, live our lives as we are. But still marriage, or at least coupledom looms large. As does motherhood. My childless state is something to be pitied by most women, feared and viewed with suspicion by others. What scares others the most however is my seeming inaction to ‘fix’ either of these things.
I’m not saying Bobbie or I are right or wrong to live our lives as we do. I’m not saying that either of us on our 35th Birthday need to make that choice. Can make that choice.
But when I cried in the theatre it was because finally I could hear that voice, my voice, without pity or judgement. Elliott and Craig together gave women an honest portrayal or all those complexities. There’s a bit of Bobbie’s life in all of us. Some like me feel her all the way, I felt like my entire life was on stage before me. Others will see glimpses. All of us will see something.
And I am so thankful for that. For feeling the woman, front and centre on stage and for all those women in the audience I’m sharing it with. All it’s complexities. I don’t need a happy ending for that to be important. I just needed to feel like a story I’ve lived has been told. And it has. And I am so thankful.
And from a theatrical point of view. It was time, it was damn time, that a woman got to belt out Being Alive. For every theatre kid who grew up wanting the parts they were told they can’t have. Marianne Elliott and Rosalie Craig gave us that as well.
Now until March 2019, Gielgud Theatre Tickets Here