A Little Night Music
Music/Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
July 7th - 21st, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Director : Andrew Short
In-house review by David Patrickson
Before I get into
the review proper, let's begin with a little quiz. Hands up those
of you who like the work of Stephen Sondheim. OK. Now hands up those
of you who don't like it or think you won't. Right. Quite a split,
I think. Until very recently I was firmly in the second camp. I love
musicals. The only musical I have fled during the interval was written
by Sondheim, and he was written others that were close run things.
The prospect of an evening watching a Tower production of A Little Night Music was as appealing as an imminent maths exam. Actually that simile is entirely appropriate as I had generally found Sondheim to be more mathematician than musician. At seven thirty the examination began. Within fifteen minutes my worst fears were being confirmed. Then flash! I was converted. It was as simple as that.
The production was a revelation. Writing this from my notes several days later I feel, if anything, more certain of that. First of all, Andrew Short, the director, was fortunate enough or clever enough to have assembled a cast that fitted the piece perfectly. He is, in any case, a person of some style and vision in theatrical matters, and this was very stylish indeed.
The simple yet flexible set, by Stephen Green, was ravishingly lit by Stephen Ley, who also designed the sound. The music, recorded but brilliantly precise under the direction of Jonathan Norris, underpinned the style and the mood, and the costumes, by Linda Girling, were, well, sumptuous is the only word. The evening would have worked even as a succession of tableaux in sound and vision but, being choreographed by Anna Twilley, was even better.
The story is not original. Based on Ingmar Bergman's film, Smiles of a Summer Night, it tells of three seriously mismatched couples in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden, and how their relationships are resolved. Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer, is a middle-aged widower recently re-married to the young and inexperienced Anne. His former lover, the actress Désirée Armfeldt, is having an affair with a dragoon officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, whose wife is the waspish Countess Charlotte. And, to complete the triangle, Frederick's son, Henrik, a divinity student, is in love with his step-mother, who is a year younger than himself.
First of all the songs. Once the typically tortuous Sondheim quadratic equation, the linked songs Now, Later and Soon have told us of the sad state of the male Egerman sex-life, they are very good indeed. Of course there were highlights. In The Glamorous Life, Désirée shatters the myths of a life on the road as an actress. On meeting Désirée for the first time in many years, Fredrik tells her You Must Meet My Wife. Of course he means the exact opposite. Send In The Clowns of course is the song that everyone knows. Possibly one of the best songs about lost opportunities ever. But my favourite was A Weekend In The Country, which closed the first half and made me desperate for the second to begin. I do love it when that happens.
Space prevents me from saying all that I think about the performances. I cannot recall a weakness anywhere. Kate Fearnley, Bob Bradick, Fiona Shafran, Celia Wells, Chris Holmes, Barbara Mathews, Meryl Griffiths and Julie Dark were a cross between a Greek chorus and a roomful of zephyrs. Their moves almost choreographed to waltz time, yet also seeming as random as a breeze.
Alison Hopwood as Désirée hit every chime perfectly. Weary of the acting profession, yet an actor through and through. Needing to settle and, perhaps, ultimately having the need satisfied. Her daughter, Fredrika, played by Julia Main with a sweet knowing innocence, does much to bring Anne and Henrik together, paving the way to her mother's happiness.
David Sellar's Fredrik carried more humour than is normally associated with Swedish lawyers. His middle-aged longing for receding youth was not desperate and his acceptance of the status quo and a life with Désirée was no mere second prize.
Mark Macey, as his son, Fredrik, displayed a suitably tortured soul, while chasing Petra, his father's maid, and running off with his step-mother. Sophie Urquhart as Petra showed exactly why a man needs a maid. She understands what her life is about, finding passion with Frid, the Armfeldts' butler, played by Craig Carruthers.
Still a virgin after eleven months of marriage, Anne is scared of being a grown-up because she is not yet an adult. But most of all she is not a bad person. She elopes with Henrik because it is more natural than staying with his father. Philippa Pearson portrayed the mixture of emotions in a most credible manner.
Désirée's mother, Madame Armfeldt, has seen it all before. The crowned heads of Europe have passed through her arms and nothing surprises her, but modern life is not to her taste and she is looking forward to a long hereafter. Eileen Marner was a brilliant counterpoint to contemporary morals and a regal representative of a bygone age.
So too, although in a different way, was Chris de Pury's Carl-Magnus. Stiff Prussian pomposity supporting unspeakable self-belief. He too is a member of a disappearing world that was finally obliterated in mud and barbed wire. His chivalry is oddly twisted as he duels with Fredrik to defend his position with his mistress in full view of his wife. His wife, Countess Charlotte, is a major catalyst. Her husband's infidelities have sharpened her wit to a stiletto point. She has many of the best lines and Janet South delivered them like rapier thrusts with a look in her eyes that said she knew exactly what she was doing. She is happy to win back her husband, but that does seem a booby prize.
The death of Madame Armfeldt was the perfect ending. It was what she wanted. I wanted to see it all again.