Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
The second leg of GSA’s summer foray into Stephen Sondheim – the second-year students had made a brave stab at one of his lesser shows, Anyone Can Whistle, the week before – was on safer ground with Company, perhaps the most audience-friendly and definitely one of the most musically-satisfying of his impressive body of work.
True, you first have to suspend belief that these drama students are supposed to be at least in their mid-thirties, that one has been married three times, that another has kids at home, and that they are part of the suave Manhattan upper-middle-classes.
But once the audience accepts director Nicholas Scrivens can only work with what he has – fit young men and women who cannot claim the life experience of the folk they are portraying but have much else to offer – it is not difficult to get carried along with the adult storyline and the master wordsmith’s bitter-sweet lyrics.
The plot (based on a book by George Furth) revolves around Bobby, a seemingly successful single man unable to commit to a serious relationship and not even sure of his sexuality (at least not in this contemporary version which has a steamy sex sequence fully meriting the programme warning: ‘Not suitable for Under-16s’).
Spending most of his time boozing, smoking pot and bedding air-headed air stewardesses, he is for some reason popular with the married couples and the three very different girlfriends we meet in a series of vignettes linked to a 35th birthday party being secretly planned for him.
It is a celebration that doesn’t quite work out but ends with the hope he will one day find the right one to join him for the challenge of truly ‘Being Alive’.
Having terrific songs helps tremendously and there’s one after another of those, most famously ‘The Little Things We Do Together’ and ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, given the full treatment by Lauren Byrne as disillusioned man-eater Joanne.
The tongue-twister ‘Not Getting Married Today’ is always a big moment. It is wickedly difficult to sing but Josie Kemp, as the frazzled Amy, manages it nicely and all the acting bits on top.
‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’, wonderfully choreographed by Rachael Kerridge, has the three women he’s been fooling around with as an all-singing, all-dancing trio hilariously chastising Bobby for his reluctance to commit. Megan Leung, Amy Hart and Alice Gruden attack this with great relish, and that energy is later matched by the Act II ensemble pieces ‘Side By Side’ and ‘What Would We Do Without You’, great credit again to Kerridge.
The visual humour of the karate-style fight between husband-and-wife Sarah and Harry – he supposedly a reforming alcoholic, she on a diet she’s having trouble sticking to – is dazzlingly achieved by two performers with huge potential, Charlotte O’Rourke and Joe Etherington.
Taite-Elliot Drew makes a decent job of the demanding role of Bobby, although ‘Barcelona’ could have been funnier.
The vocal demands of ‘Another Hundred People’ cause Alice Gruden some problems, but there is certainly nothing wrong with her acting in the follow-up scene with Bobby.
The actress who impresses me most is Jessica Paul as the uptight Jenny who tries marijuana for the first time just to appear “with it”, but makes a fool of herself, embarrassing her Ivy League husband David (Jack Gordon Watson). Jenny is a part easy to overplay but this young lady carries it off brilliantly.
Adam Pettit also handles a difficult role with great confidence. He’s Peter whose marriage to his southern belle Susan (Sophie Reeves, good accent) appears perfect until his guilty secret is revealed – he’s gay and later does his clumsy best to pick up Bobby, who at first is uncertain whether it’s a wind-up, coming from such an old friend.
Alex Jones as Amy’s ever-patient Jewish fiancé is a nice cameo and Will Arundell just has time to make an impression as Larry, the third husband of the predatory Joanne, in what is an excellent team effort.
Musical director Niall Bailey on keyboards and William Harvey (cello) do full justice to a great score and the inexperienced cast rises to the considerable challenges posed by Sondheim and director Scrivens, who deserves great credit for a most thoughtful and interesting interpretation of this exceptional piece of musical theatre.
* Readers may also be interested in:
Guildford School of Acting – Anyone Can Whistle – Review