A Little Night Music continues at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, London until 31 October.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Every so often, a production of a classic show comes along that makes you think – why have I never seen it like this before? I’m a Sondheim [A Little Night Music’s prolific writer] enthusiast, but my enjoyment of his shows is far from granted, due not just to their musical difficulty, but the subtlety of their writing and themes. So I am overjoyed that the creative team and cast at this Walthamstow pub theatre has managed to wrestle this complex, loquacious beast into a wise and human piece of theatre. And all the more impressive, doing so with a fraction of the resources productions usually get.
Set in rurally aristocratic North Sweden in the early 1900s, the show is a stiff-collared sharp-tongued window into a (not entirely) bygone age of humans and their bizarre mating rituals and etiquette systems. Diving through interweaved plots like birds between branches, the first group comprises the charming lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Alexander McMorran) and his studious, celibate and hyper-moral son Henrik (Joshua Considine), together with Fredrik’s twittery and [very] young wife Anne (Maria Coyne) and her maid Petra (Jodie Beth Meyer).
As a gift Fredrik takes Anne to the theatre, where we see the seasoned but glamorous Desiree Armfeldt (played with brilliant comedy, confidence and charm by Sarah Waddell), who is in fact an old friend and [now renewed] tryst of Fredrik. Desiree’s current but, to her mind, played-out affair is with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Samuel Baker) who plays a confident stolid counterpart to his wife Charlotte (Jamie Birkett) whose cynically acerbic but effacingly humoured delivery shines here.
Ending Act I with a sublime ‘A Weekend in the Country’, the characters are all invited by Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt (Lindsey Murray) to her chateau, and the various ladies hatch schemes to reclaim their husbands, or in Desiree’s case, claim another’s.
Most of all, director Tim McArthur and cast have created something rare indeed – a believable musical. Perfectly balanced performances, laid out boldly but with care, toying with the farce but always rooted in emotional honesty. The character progression sits so organically inside the plot, and is painted so naturally, that it is hard to resist being moved by the show’s resolution.
It’s a special feat because as enjoyable as the show inevitably is for its wonderful script and indelible music, I have never found it to be quite so down to earth or, indeed, relevant. The circumstances may have changed but the concepts – fidelity, jealousy, love, desire – are all still as consuming as ever. And it is the simple philosophy behind some of the lesser characters, about passion permitted unrestrained, un-intellectualised, that is given the final word, by the events and by Petra’s enthused ‘The Miller’s Son’.
The intimacy of being so close to the cast possibly enhances this: the experience is immediate and one led by realism (when so many productions – of this or anything else – can be addled into serving just the script, forgetting subtext and the broader significance of a piece).
Excellent work shaping the set and framing the story is done by Desiree’s daughter Fredrika (Kerry Loosemore), the supporting cast making up the quintet (Kim Bergkvist, Stewart Briggs, Lily de-la-Haye, Sarah Dearlove and Tim Southgate), and staff: Tom Whalley and Sarah Yeomans.
The cast reproduces Sondheim’s intricate words and lyrics effortlessly, and the chamber band does a stellar job replicating the heart of the lush music between the four of them, led on piano by musical director Aaron Clingham.