Tuesday, February 05, 2013


at the Menier Chocolate Factory

A sell-out run for this welcome Sondheim revival, given a solid-gold staging in Maria Friedman's assured production.

There's talk of a West End transfer, too, but some of the charm of the Menier show is the up-close intimacy of the shared experience. Even the nine-strong band is shoe-horned onto the stage, standing in their perspex box like so many tube travellers. [MD is Catherine Jayes.]

Though it was not a hit first time out, the show has many strengths, not least its ingenious structure. Like Pinter's Betrayal, it works backwards through the years, so that the happy ending is almost unbearably sad. At the heart of the story, three best friends, who meet as students – writer, composer, critic/novelist – but drift apart and end acrimoniously. Mary – a superb performance from Jenna Russell – turns to the bottle, Frank [impeccably sung and acted by Mark Umbers] sells out to Hollywood, and poor old Charley [Damian Humbley] is sidelined but refuses to compromise.

The staging is slick and ingenious, and I was amazed at the subtlety of the sound balance achieved in this reclaimed industrial space. The music is complex, and many of the choruses are almost operatic in their structure. Though there are no memorable tunes, even by Sondheim standards, there are plenty of super numbers, like Charley's bouncy, bitter Franklin Shepard Inc. And the title song refrain which heralds the next step back in time – how did we get where we are ?

And that question is at the heart of this show – a poignant, elegantly crafted dissection of showbusiness, friendship, idealism and disillusion.

Transferred to the plusher Harold Pinter, with comfier seats and proper pit for the band, the show is just as intimate, just as compelling. This second look reveals the brilliant work in supporting roles by such as Martin Callaghan as camp Terry, and the redneck father of Frank's first wife Beth [Clare Foster]. The self-centred, vicious Gussie, star of the musicals and Frank's second wife, is memorably played by Serafina Gabrielle.

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