Putting it Together continues at the Naughton Studio, Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 19 December.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
It’s not just that Blunt Fringe Productions is doing what no one else in Northern Ireland is doing, it’s that they do it so well. Musical theatre has long been ill served by professional companies in the region who have largely, with some exceptions, surrendered the domain to amateur efforts. Now, it has a local champion.
Formed as recently as 2013, Belfast-based Blunt Fringe has argued the case for musical theatre with a panache that belies its youth in a trio of productions traversing the old (surveys of Kander and Ebb and Jacques Brel) and the new (the Irish premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years) and all with a satisfying sense of style, flair and idiomatic certainty.
Their latest offering, Stephen Sondheim’s Putting it Together – belatedly receiving its Irish premiere in the composer’s 85th birthday year – blends both past and present in this career-spanning compendium with customary aplomb. A sign of the company’s growing confidence and ambition, the production also highlights the lack of resources available to it and puts some strain on its tried and tested minimalist approach to staging.
Increasingly, the compact black box of the Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio feels confining to the company, obliging them to employ ‘poor theatre’ production values decidedly at odds with the impeccably rich standards of performance and musicianship on display. Surely, the Lyric’s main stage beckons for whatever comes next from Blunt Fringe.
Producers Claire Murray and Rachel Logan-Fee choose material well and, just as crucially, cast well, the mix of young and experienced performers in this four-hander seamlessly blended by director Stephen Whitson. The ability of all concerned to find consistent flesh-and-blood characters in a portmanteau piece culled from a baker’s dozen of musicals says much about Whitson’s deft way with performers. So, too, his deft use of the space (albeit the balcony scenes are not altogether convincing) and pacy direction.
Especially striking is the sense of ensemble, with BRIT School graduate Brad Clapson’s camp narrator figure working the audience with vaudevillian ebullience and an altogether nimble sureness. Carol Starks and Christina Tedders chart the emotional sea changes of their characters with compassionate subtlety, each responsible for some of the evening’s standout vocal moments. As before, Fra Fee brings a vulnerable sense of tousled-hair ingenuousness to proceedings while West End veteran Nicholas Pound adds a touch of suave, sure-footed class all his own.
The six-piece band under musical director Isaac McCullough provide luxurious support throughout in dexterous playing full of telling detail.
Reservations aside, Putting it Together is another success for a fledging company of considerable potential. If the profile of musical theatre is to develop in Northern Ireland, Blunt Fringe look certain to be the company that stakes its claim for attention. Although, a change of name wouldn’t hurt and greater funding would certainly help.