mon 04/03/2024

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre review - exuberant gala of nonstop virtuosity | reviews, news & interviews

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre review - exuberant gala of nonstop virtuosity

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre review - exuberant gala of nonstop virtuosity

Big Broadway show with a pleasing British accent

Beautiful girls: the female ensemble of 'Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends' Danny Kaan

The Sondheim gala show Old Friends is a must for fans of the master, naturally, but its quality would knock anybody who loves musical theatre for six. 

It’s the successor to a one-off gala of the same name staged in May 2022 and broadcast since by the BBC; a recording will soon be available. The line-up that night included Bernadette Peters, Judi Dench, Sian Phillips, Damian Lewis, Maria Friedman, Helena Bonham Carter, Haydn Gwynne, Julian Ovenden and Julia McKenzie. 

The last-named has lent her expertise to the current production, along with Matthew Bourne, who's in charge of the staging. She is joined by choreographer Stephen Mear and the particular old friend of Sondheim behind the whole shebang, producer Cameron Mackintosh, whose mock-stern voice we occasionally hear — mercifully, the only sign of a “narrator”. The songs are allowed to speak for themselves.

Bourne’s smooth staging couldn’t be simpler. The band, conducted by Alfonso Casado Trigo, is on a raised area at the back, and a giant wavy metal stave of music bearing Sondheim’s signature sweeps across behind the cast. Buildings glide on at the sides for the Sweeney Todd, Follies and West Side Story numbers, and there’s a mini vaudeville theatre that drops down for Buddy’s Blues in the second half. The whole is so skilfully managed that the cast have time for costume changes and new makeup. But the emphasis is squarely on the performers.

And what performers, 19 in all. After a preamble from Sunday in the Park with George, where the artist’s model Dot recites George's key ingredients for his art, Sondheim’s too (“Order, Design, Tension, Composition, Balance, Light… Harmony"), the ensemble start to appear onstage. Dot is played by one of the two head lionesses in the pack: Bernadette Peters, astonishingly making her full West End debut at 75. Also making the trip from the US is Lea Salonga, as pure-voiced as ever. 

Then the company launch into Side by Side in a chorus line across the stage, grinning from ear to ear and clearly delighted to be there. And we’re off on a dazzling tour of 39 songs with lyrics by Sondheim, each one a winner.

Bradley Jaden and Bernadette Peters in Old FriendsWhat’s especially gratifying is to see the range of the performers, from Sondheim veterans Joanna Riding and Janie Dee, the latter a returnee from the 2002 gala, to newer Sondheim singers such as the rich-voiced Christine Allado and Bradley Jaden, a deliciously seductive Wolf to Peters' Red Riding Hood (pictured right). We also get to see Jeremy Secomb, the great Sweeney Todd from the Tooting pie-shop production, which Sondheim visited (and got spattered with stage blood), and the dynamic Jason Pennycooke, a seasoned musicals man who was a fine Lafayette in Hamilton.

How to choose from the riches? If you love a comic patter song executed to perfection, there’s Joanna Riding’s breathtaking “Getting Married Today” or Janie Dee in a peerlessly arch and word-perfect “The Boy From…”, which requires her to master not just a Portuguese tongue-twister but the longest place name in the UK, which is Welsh. 

For sheer comedy, you are totally spoilt for choice. The three bump-and-grinders from Gypsy’s “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (necessarily in full costuming) bring the house down, led by Peters in an antique plumed helmet, a cornet in hand, which she uses to bend over and play almost-notes on through her legs. Riding is a class act in this song too, positively feline. They follow male counterparts in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (Gavin Lee, Damian Humbley and Jason Pennycooke, pictured below) who have a lot of camp fun in aprons with feather dusters. 

Gavin Lee, Damian Humbley, Jason Pennycooke in Old FriendsThere are surprises, such as Salonga’s naughty Mrs Lovett, her cockney accent fine in the song, though a tad wonky in places in the snatches of dialogue; elsewhere she is the rock-solid singer belting out “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and soaring over the “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story. There’s Bonnie Langford high-kicking to a pure vertical and doing the splits in “Broadway Baby”, here an ensemble number after a solo start that lampoons the British love of slowing down its tempo; and there’s the unexpected reassigning of “Could I Leave You?” to a male singer (Lee), which becomes a more savage tirade than usual. 

Sadness and regret, usually served up with lashings of irony, are never far away in a Sondheim song, or in this bill, which has all the gems you could wish for: Peters in “Send in the Clowns", the burr in her voice very obvious now, but the delivery still showstopping, as she is too in “Losing My Mind”; Langford defiantly tough in “I’m Still Here”; Clare Burt, who stepped up to replace Haydn Gwynne late in the day, stunning in “The Ladies Who Lunch” and bringing a nuanced actorly edge to the bittersweet “The Little Things You Do Together” (with Lee).

Towards the end of the second half, the action pauses to switch to a slideshow about Sondheim himself, with pictures from all points in his life (he was a pretty baby), to “Not a Day Goes By”, before heading full tilt to “Being Alive”, “Old Friends” and a reprise of “Side by Side” as a finale. (Don’t rush off at this point as there is still one more surprise to come.) It’s an almost exhaustingly rich mix.

The love driving every aspect of this production isn’t the only thing that impresses. However many times you hear a Sondheim lyric, you can be struck anew by its wit, its perceptiveness, its complex shadings. Who else could rhyme “sacrifice your sacro” with “working in the back row” and yet also come up with the impassioned sweep of “Being Alive” and “Children Will Listen”? The Follies ladies dream of being in a big Broadway show: here it is, yet with a pleasingly British accent.

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