Our quarterly magazine, ‘SONDHEIM the Magazine’ does not usually carry reviews of amateur productions for reasons of space, except when there is a specific purpose such as an article on amateur productions in general. When we commission reviews and there is not enough space in the Magazine we will feature the review here.
Company, Bancroft’s Players, The Space on North Bridge, Edinburgh 11th – 16th August 2014
Of all Stephen’s shows, there are some which lend themselves naturally to school productions – the schools version of Into the Woods, say, with just the cosy fairy tales of Act One and none of the tangled grown-up consequences of Act Two, or the gleeful blood and guts of Sweeney perhaps. Even Assassins could be played as an educational historical pageant. But it takes a particular kind of bravery to take on Company. The bitter-sweet reflections of turning thirty-five unmarried with the well-intentioned pressures of loving but intervening friends aren’t obvious fodder for a cast whose average age is less than half Bobby’s. Surely there’s a danger that the whole thing is going to end up the equivalent of Bugsy Malone: a kind of emotional Scarface played by kiddies throwing cream pies. Then there’s the problem of all that inappropriateness. Do we leave out the cannabis smoking, the bedroom scenes, the discussion of homosexual activity? Will they play it without giggling? What will their parents think?
Ellie Middleton, the director of this Edinburgh Fringe production from Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green, was undaunted by any such concerns, and gave us a show which was faithful, intelligent, musical, moving and unstinting, and flawed only, in the main, by the need to make cuts to fit the proportions of a typical Fringe show – in this case eighty minutes.
The cast of 15 made a strong sound in ensemble, and there were some stand-out stars among them. Charlie Layburn, in particular, as Bobbie, was a performer of great confidence and charisma and commanded a voice of silky sophistication for all his seventeen years. His ‘Oh God!’ at the end of ‘Barcelona’ was perfectly timed and judged. May Al-Shawk took ‘Getting Married Today’ at a lick which I haven’t seen professionals attempt, and yet without a single slip of diction or loss of clarity.
Accompaniment was largely from music teacher Allan Clay’s electronic piano placed at the side of the stage, but this positioning allowed him to be joined by the actors playing Peter (Ashley Brand – Clarinet/sax) and David (Provhat Rahman – Trumpet), thickening the texture for some of the songs.
The cuts inevitably fell on some of the dialogue, and for me this led to a loss of continuity or clarity in the drama of what is anyway a somewhat episodic book. In particular, Poor Baby, which usually frames and adds resonance to Bobby’s liaison with April, close to the emotional climax of the piece, was left out altogether. Important establishing dialogue of that scene was lost too, along with, (perhaps inevitably given the youth of the performers) the frenzied sexual passion which should accompany Bobby’s story. Elsewhere, songs were frustratingly light by a verse or two. Another Hundred People didn’t get into its stride before coming to an abrupt end. You Could Drive a Person Crazy distinctly lacked sass.
Despite these caveats, these youngsters are to be congratulated for tackling a challenging musical and bringing genuine Sondheim quality to the packed houses to which they played.
The Fringe was like nothing I had ever experienced as a performer. Walking down the Royal Mile was surreal. Seeing thousands watch street performances, actors flyering to advertise their shows and music blasting from local venues let you appreciate the scale of the festival; absolutely massive and utterly frightening compared to the local theatre back home.
On top of this we were an amateur company which is like being chucked in the deep end at the Fringe. You are up against the professionals, the comfort of recognising the audience is gone and worst of all, the critics are not afraid to rip into you if your performance is not perfect. But then I guess that is the thrill of it – by performing this ambitious musical and getting such a wonderful response, I felt that I had achieved so much more than if I had just performed it to friends and family. As Sondheim is a firm favourite at the Fringe, receiving compliments from his fans had a much greater personal impact. The Fringe has inspired me to be a better performer, and someday I’d love to do it all again!
A Little Night Music by The Portsmouth Players at The Barn, Milton Park, 18-21 July, 2014
The Players have their own studio theatre in a barn in the middle of a park in a city suburb where they stage their more intimate shows such as this one while also putting on more ambitious musicals, like their next, Sister Act, at the gorgeous King’s Theatre in Southsea, built in Edwardian times by Frank Matcham, the great theatre architect responsible for the Palladium, Coliseum and Hippodrome in London as well as Hackney Empire.
Their Into The Woods at the King’s won a Best Amateur Production of a Musical award a decade ago and the Players brought back ITW director Ian Good, a big Sondheim fan who also oversaw Company by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2012 and had masterclassed ALNM with the great man himself, to guide them again.
“We always wanted to do A Little Night Music,” publicity manager Jack Edwards told me, “but never really found the right venue. It was only when we decided to make our headquarters into a studio theatre that we felt we could do the show.”
It was thanks to a substantial grant from the National Lottery, through the Arts Council, that the Players were able to commission a total refurbishment of The Barn, now resplendent with a complex of rehearsal rooms, wardrobe, props and scenery stores and a social area fit for the 21st century.
The actors did not appear to be miked up but the acoustics were so superb that even these old ears, stationed back in Row J, did not miss a word, even in the complex “Weekend In The Country” party scene at the rear of the stage. The same cannot always be said about West End professionals these days now that so many are TV-trained and never taught how to project.
This musical interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s wittiest and most satisfying film Smiles Of A Summer Night about lost love and marriage in turn-of-the-19th-century Sweden makes demands that are never easy to meet but the cast of ten featured a number of seasoned campaigners who knew exactly what they were doing.
Indeed, two of them, Joanna Alldridge as Desiree Armfeldt and the powerful-voiced Stuart Warner as the jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus, were so polished that any group in the land would be delighted to have them as members.
Alldridge was, of course, charged with making sense of Sondheim’s most famous song of regret and anger “Send In The Clowns” and while Clowns does not require a great voice – as Glynis Johns, Elizabeth Taylor (!) and Judi Dench, all better known as actresses than singers, have shown down the years – it does demand total comprehension of Sondheim’s intent. The writer would surely have been pleased with what this impressive performer made of it.
The versatile Alldridge was equally at home with the humour of “You Must Meet My Wife” in a caustic duet with Robert Day’s Fredrik Egerman, her former lover and the man she finally realises she has loved all along.
Warner’s imposing stage presence as the Count itching for a duel made us wish he had more to do and his hilarious turn with love rival Day in the wry “It Would Have Been Wonderful” was another high spot of an evening of considerable charm.
Matthew Cooper clearly relished playing Henrik, Fredrik’s teenage son training to be a priest but obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh, and Kayleigh Pendry’s spirited “A Miller’s Son” lit up the part of the young but sexually mature Petra who has bigger ambitions than to be a mere maid.
Also shining in a fine cast were Patricia Roberts as the wheelchair-bound old lady Madame Armfeldt reflecting wistfully of the “Liaisons” of her chequered, refined past and Helen Wilson as Count’s too-forgiving wife Charlotte with her bitter take on the pain of marriage in “Every Day A Little Death”.
Abbie Warner as Fredrika, Hannah Pilbeam-Ali as Fredrik’s still-virginal new wife Anne, and Michael Pitt as Frid the butler all did well in lesser roles while with only Louise Helyer on piano and Brione Jackson on cello (both excellent) there was little danger of the music overpowering the words.
A special word for Jackie Wilkins’ costumes which were out of the top drawer as was the whole evening, doing Sondheim and Portsmouth proud.
The one beef came with the programme which failed to list the songs with the names of who sang them, for me an absolute must with any musical. It is a regular occurrence, at amateur and even professional shows, and deprives the paying public of basic but vital information that adds to the evening’s pleasure.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Performed at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, 19 to 24 May 2014 by the Cirencester Operatic Society
If you are in a hurry, to save you time reading the rest, the performance was jolly good but you’re too late to see it because the last night was on May 24. I expect it will be on somewhere else soon; it usually is.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is an early Stephen Sondheim, very early – well, Roman. Cirencester, alias Corinium, was a fitting venue for the Cirencester Operatic Society’s full-hearted production although the Barn Theatre is post-Roman, from the Nissan hut period. On this occasion, for artistic reasons, it housed a brothel run by a suitably venal Marcus Lycus, aided by a trio of eunuchs. I suppose it must have been approved by Cirencester District Council (Conservative).
When the musical first arrived in the West End, in 1963, Pseudolus was played by Frankie Howerd. Howerd having died in 1992, Tom Mullins nobly stepped in, wearing a large orange toga and, for Act II, an ice pack on his head (see below, if you can be bothered).
Pseudolus, a very lippy slave (he would surely have died from insubordination in Rome) kicks the show off, soon joined by the entire cast in an enthusiastic rendering of the splendid “Comedy Tonight.” I think I can speak for the whole audience (a full hut) when I say that it lifted us out of the usual depression and left us marvelling at how happy the cast all looked. Drugs, I suppose. Several days later, I found myself still singing the tune, albeit with different notes.
Sondheim’s work is a very clever and rather demanding feast, although only for the players. The audience just have to sit, laugh and be entertained as the unlikely plot unfolds, accompanied by a delightful band (virtually all the notes seemed to be the right ones) and Sondheim’s nimble lyrics.
Hero, played by Sam Stafford, with the look of a young Peter O’Toole, is in love with Philia, a virgin from the brothel. Either they were more prevalent in Roman times or Marcus Lycus was overcharging.
Hero and Philia (Megan Strachan) both have rather good voices, as does Keith Swinford, playing Senex and leading the way with the marvellous “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” Well, I liked it, anyway.
As the five piece band practised (I’d have thought it was a bit late for that) for the start of Act II, the announcer announced “Our leading man has banged his head. I’d like to say we have an understudy but we don’t.” There would be a five minute delay.
After it, a mildly befuddled Pseudolus, clutching an ice pack to his head, slaved on in true theatrical tradition, or possibly in the belief that the local A & E department might have closed down.
It would be unfair to single individual performers out for special mention. Elizabeth Gravestock was particularly good as Hysterium. Then again, so were several others, as non-Hysteriums.
As is the way with these things, the tale’s various strands and loose ends were finally brought together in unlikely but satisfying harmony, to produce a happy ending (much better than watching the Titanic) rounded off with a rousing rendering of “Finale.” The cast looked very happy (it was the final performance and a lot of hard work must have gone into it) and the audience looked happy, too.
The Cirencester Operatic Society has been going since 1951, and a jolly good thing. Well done, one and all.