This is astonishing in so many ways it feels as if you’re hemmed in by reasons to cheer. Marianne Elliott’s re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark experimental 1970 musical (with skittish book by George Furth) reboots a modern classic for the Tinder age. It’s sensational. But it might not have worked.
Yes, Sondheim is a known genius, Elliott one of our finest directors. And, sure, there’s something inevitable – given our identity-fluid times – about taking the pivotal role of Bobby, a sexy, unattached New Yorker contemplating the hazards (and rewards) of coupledom as he hits 35, and – hey presto – gender-switching it. But let’s be honest: planting an actress in a hitherto male role can entail a formidable suspension of disbelief.
None of the usual indulgence, though, is required here. Updating the plot-less, dreamlike action to the New York of here and now, Elliott achieves the equivalent of a high-speed handbrake turn that doesn’t emit a jarring screech or alarming gear-shift. She hurtles the same vehicle for some of the funniest and most stirring songs in the Sondheim canon against the usual flow (with knock-on modifications among the supporting dramatis personae) and somehow you’re left persuaded that this route is the most effective, and affecting.
Rosalie Craig gives a career-making performance as “Bobbie”, taking you inside the mind of a relatable woman who should be carefree but, assailed by social invitations and unsubtle insinuations from her needy married friends, feels the pressure to settle down, compounded by the ticking of her biological clock.
Taking a hallucinogenic leaf out of Alice in Wonderland, the creative team use the psychological spring-board of an anticipated surprise birthday party to propel Bobbie into a curiouser and curiouser world in which the familiar becomes ethereal.
It’s a kind of theatrical magic, as our flame-haired, red-dressed heroine steps from the confines of her box-like, lit-framed apartment (as much prison cell as sanctuary) into a succession of environments that have the floating quality of the silver helium party balloons that are the main visual motif.
Objects – and people – materialise and disappear as if they’re channelling the Cheshire Cat. Blink and you’ll miss a coup de théâtre, but as well as being spellbinding in their own right, the illusions bring home the moral that while you’re busy, distracted, your chance of happiness might vanish into thin air.
Craig – with her facial expressiveness (flickers of bemused quizzicality and suppressed panic) and vocal soulfulness – delivers a tour de force that deserves to be the talk of the town. But she’s at the centre of an evening which, as the title (emblazoned in neon lettering come the close) suggests, is all about ensemble effort.
There’s no room to do justice to everyone involved in a show that looks and sounds immaculate, but the cost of admission is single-handedly repaid, in turn, by former Bake Off host Mel Giedroyc as the smug but far from satisfied married Susan (furtively nibbling a brownie); by George Blagden’s preposterously cocksure young Brit-abroad PJ; by Richard Fleeshman as a hunky, sweetly gormless and sexually obliging air-steward Andy (a neat bit of feminist revisionism, that) and byJonathan Bailey as a verbally hysterical, very reluctant gay bridegroom-to-be (another meticulous gender shift).
Last but by no means least there’s Patti LuPone, who came out of musicals retirement specially to play the caustic role of multi-divorcee Joanne. As hilarious as she is imperious, drawling and bawling out the satirical number The Ladies Who Lunch while sitting disdainfully still in a fur wrap, knocking back the booze, she provides the spiky finishing touch to a sublime cocktail of an entertainment you’d be mad to miss.
“Smart, fresh and relevant”
Apparently, Stephen Sondheim is rather pleased with this new production of his 1970 musical. He should be. Marianne Elliott's decision to turn the central character of singleton Bobby into a female Bobbie transforms and illuminates the entire show. It feels smart, fresh and relevant. It was always one of Sondheim's very best compositions, witty and passionate in equal measures. This approach makes it a revelation all over again.
What's wonderful about Elliott is her consistency and care. She has worked with Sondheim on the changes, and their attention to detail shows. Where Bobby was a slightly tiresome bachelor, surrounded by married friends who wanted to pair him off, Bobbie is a woman who is looking at a ticking biological clock but reluctant to give up her freedom. A musical about the danger of disengagement and loneliness becomes a show about a clever woman who has to weigh up what she gains and what she loses by her unmarried state. Something is really at stake.
This is made clearest in an inserted fantasy sequence where Rosalie Craig's Bobbie, about to clamber into bed with a handsome jock, is suddenly haunted by images of herself, in the same red dress, with the same flame hair, slipping into the bedroom like so many ghosts, carrying babies, exhausted, pregnant.
This bold stroke is characteristic of the entire production. The whole staging is a dazzling dip into stylised fantasy, where Bobbie's encounters with "these good and crazy people/my married friends" are not realistic meetings, but dazed adventures like Alice's, as she staggers in a dreamlike state through the looking glass.
The Alice in Wonderland reference is quite explicit in Bunny Christie's florescent-framed sets, a series of moveable trucks which pinion Craig inside her living room, grouped with her friends as she celebrates her 35th birthday – "How many times do you get to celebrate your 35th birthday? Eleven!" – and then traps her inside, until she finds the key to the door. Later, the balloons that mark her age become giant larvae, filling the space. Later still, she crawls through a tiny door, to drink a small bottle of bourbon, and blow out the candles on a miniature cake.
It's thrillingly inventive and Craig's open-faced immediacy, the warm way she negotiates the journey, her pure voice, and her little exclamations of "wow", when she discovers just how messed up people's relationships can be, make her a likeable companion. Male Bobbys can be a little chilly; not Craig. She's the kind of girl you'd like as a friend. She makes you understand both her isolation and her longing for "someone to hold me too close". The delicate balance the show reaches at the close is entirely convincing.
Around her there are some terrific performances. As Joanne, Patti LuPone gives a lesson in pure class, delivering each zinging line with exactly the right mixture of menace and aplomb. She is the repository for some of the wittiest lines in George Furth's sparkling book – "My first husband? He was difficult to remember even when you were with him" – and she makes them tell. Her rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch", is so profound, you want to cheer even as you cry. The number is beautifully choreographed by Liam Steel, whose movement direction throughout (with the exception of an over-emphatic "Another Hundred People") is stylish and telling.
The other absolute standout is Jonathan Bailey's "I'm Not Getting Married Today" which is both desperate and funny, breathlessly brilliant in staging and delivery, with a singing minister bursting through the floor and out of the fridge, surrounded by pink light, her soaring soprano, and dour observations, underlining the rising tide of panic in Jamie's mind.
In the original, Jamie was Amy and this gender switch to a gay wedding is one that reinforces the sense of modernity that has always existed in Company's view of the world. Sondheim and Elliott have also swapped the dialogue given to David and Jenny, to make her a career woman and him a stay at home dad, which delicately allows Bobbie to discuss her future with a woman who knows the compromises she is facing. All the changes root the imagination of the staging in an emotional reality. With the orchestra high above the stage, under the direction of Joel Fram, it sounds as good as it looks. I have barely space to mention the broad comic contribution of Mel Giedroyc as the permanently disappointed Sarah, or the cherubic sadness of Gavin Spokes as put-upon Harry. There is so much to admire and like in this richly inventive production that confirms Elliott as one of our best directors and Company as a great musical. No wonder Sondheim was happy.
“This production deserves to go down as a game-changer”
“Swapping genders was a brilliant idea”
“Surprising, sexy and clever”
Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy dates from 1970, but in Marianne Elliott ’s production — not so much a revival as a complete reimagining — it feels wonderfully fresh.
A few lyrics have been tweaked, and the action’s set in the present (think smartphones and dating apps), but more importantly Elliott has brought a finely crafted unity to a show that has previously resembled a series of sketches. It’s surprising, sexy and clever.
Those aren’t words that have tended to be used of its male lead Bobby, a commitment-phobic New Yorker who can seem a bit of a nonentity. Except here he’s reinvented as Bobbie, a woman sharply attuned to both the rewards and limits of relationships, and a radiant performance by Rosalie Craig all but banishes memories of past interpretations.
Reviewing her life as she turns thirty-five, Bobbie is torn between confusion and a sense of possibility. Part slick go-getter, part Bridget Jones, she’s bewildered yet also tickled by the world’s contradictions — above all, the idea that, though marriage is hard, not being married can seem harder.
Bobbie is surrounded by people who have a distinctly New York mix of snappy humour and neurosis. One of Elliott’s points of reference is the sitcom Friends, and George Furth’s dialogue has a welcome tartness in the hands of a superb ensemble. Meanwhile a 14-strong band, perched on a bridge over the stage, revels in the richness of Sondheim’s score, especially its gemlike character-driven numbers.
One highlight is Patti LuPone ’s witheringly dry phrasing as the worldly-wise Joanne. Another is Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes) practising a hilarious form of marital jiu-jitsu in their living room.
In two other roles that have had their gender flipped, Richard Fleeshman amuses as dim flight attendant Andy (previously April) and there’s a very nearly show-stealing turn from Jonathan Bailey as Jamie (formerly Amy), a panicky young man getting jitters on his wedding day.
The ingenuity of Bunny Christie’s neon-lit design is typical of a staging that always feels precision-engineered. But even as it pops with vitality and dazzles with its wit, this is a take on Company that savours Sondheim’s subtleties. In short, it’s glorious.
Brims “with energy and flair”
Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) is a glamorous, successful singleton living in New York. As her 35th birthday approaches, her married friends put pressure on her to abandon her single life and get married. Her biological clock is also ticking.
We watch Bobbie observing how her best friends live their lives. Does she want what they’ve got? Do the securities of coupledom outweigh the compromises? Is motherhood a must-have life change?
This award-winning Broadway hit, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, was first performed in 1970. For this production, director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) has updated it for 2018, swapping the lead role from male to female, and earning great acclaim for achieving a more modern take on sexual politics. She also introduces a gay couple and a house-husband in a five-star production that has been proclaimed “theatrical magic” and “dazzling” by critics.
The high-octane cast also includes former Great British Bake Off presenter Mel Giedroyc and Broadway legend Patti LuPone, making her first appearance in a West End musical in 25 years.