Sunday, 18 January 2009


16/1/09, Menier Chocolate Factory.

2hrs 50 mins - but it didn't start until 8 so it was 11 o'clock before we pitched up at London Bridge hoping for a bus. Good thing it was a Friday, not midweek. Maybe it's so the diners in the (packed) restaurant have time to finish. Dashed inconvenient.

But a top notch show. Of course, it's by Sondheim. There are some very good jokes and some very good songs, but fundamentally it's a serious (and rather bleak) piece about lost youth, lost opportunities and the absurdities of love. The first act in particular is pretty downbeat. The ageing protagonists snatch at fleshly delights; they're vain, self-deluding, and yet you feel sorry for them.

The second act - the weekend in the country - is more upbeat, bringing matters to a suitably "comic" conclusion. But is the seminary student tortured by puppy love for his youthful stepmother really going to be any happier with her than without her? What sort of resolution is there for the ghastly dragoon, a boneheaded bully and an egomaniac, and his masochistically downtrodden wife? And as for our hero and heroine, the ageing actress and her one-time beau: can getting together now, in the autumn of their lives, really make up for the 14 years of missed opportunity since they broke up?

Sondheim's rhymes are immensely clever. I especially liked the first act song in which the newly-married ageing husband runs through the options for taking his young wife's long-preserved virginity, and concludes he'll have a nap instead. (The virginity turns out to have been a useful plot device when she runs off with his lovestruck son.)

As for his old flame: Hannah Waddington - tall, blonde, truly statuesque - is terrific. She delivers Send in the Clowns as if it's a Shakespeare soliloquy: you can hear the character's mind working as the song develops. I had shivers all over as she sang, and not just because it's so familiar: it only works that well when the context is right, and here the context was bang on.

The production, for Trevor Nunn, was admirably unfussy, a circumstance perhaps forced on him by the smallness of the Menier's stage. I'm not sure what period Sondheim originally intended but the setting is what in the UK would be Edwardian: cue entertaining goggles and helmets when motor-cars are mentioned, and long, elegant, lacy cream summer dresses for the ladies.

There were some disappointments. Why, in a house this small, are the singers amplified? It allows for some atmospheric echo at the start, but it's quite unnecessary otherwise.

Maureen Lipman as the wheelchair-bound grandmother dispensing worldly-wise advice and barbed put-downs is wonderful when speaking, less convincing when singing of her past liaisons (fun while they lasted, but not really worth it, seems to be the conclusion): her comic timing deserts her when there's music involved.

And the girl playing the young wife, though a fine actress, had a dodgy voice.

Otherwise nine and a half out of ten.

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