A Little Night Music continues at the Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, near Newbury, until 16 September.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This immaculate revival of surely one of the most perfect pieces of musical theatre ever written is worth going a long way to see. It is hard to believe Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 operetta (book by Hugh Wheeler) has ever been done better.
Although not quite a ‘Weekend in the Country’, the Watermill, a hidden gem of a theatre in a little Berkshire village on the outskirts of Newbury, is a magical setting for this stylish period piece, set in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s bittersweet romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, it involves the love life of several couples woven around actress Desiree Armfeldt’s past and present affairs with her former lover Fredrik Egerman, now middle-aged and with an 18-year-old trophy wife Anne still not ready for sex after 11 months of marriage, and her current stud, a humourless dragoon, the macho Count Carl-Magnus.
Now reduced to touring and playing out-of-town theatres, Desiree wants to give up ‘The Glamorous Life’ that’s losing its glamour and settle down.
She realises, after Fredrik comes to see her when she plays his local theatre, that he’s the one she has loved all along, and when the trophy teenage wife runs off with Fredrik’s frustrated son (Benedict Salter, an impressive Henrik), the coast is clear for the older couple to get it on again.
This leads to the show’s hit song ‘Send in the Clowns’’ (which Josefina Gabrielle totally nails in a quiet, thoughtful interpretation) and a happy-ever-after ending with even the faithless Count and his catty wife Charlotte making up and Anne’s far-from-prim maid Petra getting her man.
Alastair Brookshaw’s brilliantly-sung Fredrik and Gabrielle’s perfect-pitch Desiree have already had us in tears of laughter with ‘You Should Meet My Wife’ and in the hilarious scene where they try to explain away why Fredrik is wearing a dressing gown when the Count’s unexpected visit catches them almost with their pants down. And this dazzling pair show in the chemistry of their ‘Clowns’ reprise they can bring a lump to the throat as well.
The 13 actor-musicians in Paul Foster’s loving production are excellent on every front, the band, coiffed and clad in period, working both wings of the tiny stage.
Musical director Sarah Travis already has one Tony for a Watermill production of Sondheim that made it to New York, Sweeney Todd in 2006, and you wouldn’t bet against another coming her way if Night Music gets that far.
Alex Hammond doesn’t waste a moment as the comically insufferable Count, while the wonderful Dillie Keane (yes, she of Fascinating Aida fame) predictably steals every scene she’s in as old Madame Armfeldt, doing a great job with the complexities of past relationships in her big number ‘Liaisons’.
Christina Tedders as the earthy Petra really gets stuck into ‘The Miller’s Son’ in a passionate interpretation of that 11 o’clock number, and Lucy Keirl’s celibate Anne is by no means outshone in her moving ‘Every Day a Little Death’ duet with Phoebe Fildes’ beautifully played, deeply-damaged Countess Charlotte in yet another song that shows off Sondheim’s unequalled word-skills.
Matt Flint’s choreography – particularly with ‘Weekend in the Country’ (as good an act closer as Sondheim ever came up with) – along with David Woodhead’s set and costumes, tick every box too.
An absolute treat.