Gielgud Theatre, London
20th October, 2018, matinee
‘Blow out the candles. Make a wish’
Marianne Elliott goes from strength to strength. Her productions of War Horse and Curious Incident are some of the most imaginative and successful page-to-stage adaptations, and last year her Angels in America was event theatre at its finest. Once again, Elliott has triumphed in bringing a well-known and well-loved story to the stage with a freshness, vibrancy and relevance rarely seen in the West End. In Elliott’s hands, Stephen Sondheim’s ground breaking 1970’s musical about single life, love and commitment in New York is made over and delivers a bang up-to-date reflection on both the freedoms and pressures faced by the modern woman.
The re-gendered Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) is a breath of fresh air. How encouraging it is to see a portrayal of a mid-thirties woman that is comfortable in her own skin, likeable, and relatable. Bobbie isn’t ‘troubled’, she isn’t ‘eccentric’, she’s a normal, down-to-earth, essentially ‘good’ person. And the fact that this is enough, more than enough, to be an interesting, entertaining and empathetic protagonist of a major musical is cause for celebration! Bobbie is an everywoman, and her experiences will resonate with so many.
Living free and single in New York, she has a comfortable lifestyle; doting friends, a solid career, and plenty of parties and trysts. What more could she want? Yet Bobbie is aware that her biological clock is ticking, and on her 35th birthday she takes stock of her life, inspired, and in some cases, repelled by her posse of clucking married friends. The idea that a woman ‘must’ marry, ‘must’ have children in order to be fulfilled is one that, outdated as it sounds, remains rife in modern society. In response, Elliott (and Sondheim) presents a sensitive case that revels in feminine independence while also acknowledging the complexity of relationships, desire and freedom.
No more is this apparent than in the pitch-perfectly reimagined ‘Poor Baby’ - ‘Tick Tock’ – ‘Barcelona’ sequence. As her male friends coo their laments of the ‘poor baby, all alone’ with ‘nothing left to do but sit and wash her hair’, Bobbie gets down and dirty with her latest fling, Andy (Richard Fleeshman), in a delicious moment of juxtaposition that exposes the ignorance (and arrogance) of the male-psyche. Following this, Bobbie experiences a dream (or nightmare) in which she and Andy stay together, marry and have kids. Elliott’s use of multiple Bobbies and Andys creates a tangible sense of biological eventuality, cut through with the mundane repetition and hectic nature of ‘settled’ domesticity which is as dizzying for us as it is for Bobbie. This results in the droll ‘Barcelona’ which epitomises the conflict between Bobbie’s sexual appetite and her reluctance to remain lumbered with a ‘nice but dim’ airline host.
Elliott’s reimagining also creates interesting consequences for the Joanne/Bobbie relationship. Joanne’s scathing wit and bitter drunkenness often make her appear harsh, but here Patti LuPone affords the character a softer side and she seems almost maternal towards Bobbie. ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ implicates Bobbie in the narrative, who, like Joanne ‘just watch(es)’ and the song becomes a caution – be comfortable and confident in who you are, whoever you are; don’t conceal yourself (even if you hide behind the pithiest one-liners and immaculate glamour) or you’ll end up unhappy, ungrateful and alone, even in the most crowded of rooms. Subsequently, Joanne’s offer of an affair with her husband Larry comes across as poignant, rather than desperate. I felt that she is reaching out, through Bobbie – a younger version of herself - as a way to rectify her own misgivings and missed opportunities.
Bunny Christie’s set, like the production as a whole, is full of delightful surprises. Series of sliding rooms form and re-form throughout, chambers pop up from beneath the stage and characters appear seemingly from nowhere. Bobbie’s dining room, the location of the birthday party, is suitably cramped. The ingenious decision to play with dimensions heightens the suffocation Bobbie sometimes feels when surrounded by her friends – in one instance she is dwarfed by the oversized balloons and cake, another time she towers over everything, drowning her sorrows in a dolls-house-sized bottle of bourbon. In all, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland, with Bobbie our intrepid Alice (or should that be the White Rabbit, or the Queen of Hearts, even) navigating the absurdities of New York society.
The entire cast are splendid. Mel Giedroyc is a master of comic timing, and that fact she can elicit hilarity merely by eating a brownie, shows that she must have been born with funny bones. Her chemistry and banter with Gavin Spokes ensures Sarah and Harry’s relationship is as endearing as it is cringeworthy. Boyfriend PJ is the epitome of hipster pretension, and George Blagden relishes the role, playing him as the quintessential, smarmy git. His faux philosophising rings all too true, the recognition making the character even funnier. Jonathan Bailey is a shoe-in for best supporting actor come awards season with his show-stopping ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’, a scene that treads the line between jaw-dropping wit (thankyou, Sondheim) and utter farce. Bailey is a recognised name, but this may just be his break out role. LuPone was born to play Joanne. So effortless is her performance it almost defies critique; she simply is. But, of course, the show belongs to Rosalie Craig, who is so endearing, funny, empathetic and human that I can’t imagine Bobbie being played by anyone else (let alone A MAN?!?).
Believe the hype. Elliott’s production is defining a new era of musical theatre. Fantastic performances, lush music, hilarity tinged with poignancy, Company has it all. Above all, Elliott emphasises the ecstatic truths in Sondheim’s lyrics (the skill that, for me, is what sets him apart from his contemporaries – yes he’s incredibly witty, but the real beauty of his music is his unique way of clarifying what is thought to be inexpressible), and by the time Bobbie sings ‘Being Alive’ we have journeyed with her to that point of raw recognition. ‘Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive’ – we all want company, but, thanks to Elliott and Craig’s Bobbie, it is evident that company no longer has to be in the form of conventional marriage, or even conventional relationships. The longing for companionship may be universal, but there is no universal way of obtaining it. And the realisation of that is painful, life-affirming bliss.
Company plays at the Gielgud until 30th March, 2019.
|The cast of Company.|