Sunday 11th October 2015, matinée
All Star Productions at ‘Ye Olde Rose and Crown’ in Walthamstow are certainly helping us to get acquainted with Stephen Sondheim’s back catalogue, following an ambitious staging of Into the Woods last year with ‘A Little Night Music’. Tim McArthur returns to direct, with regular musical director Aaron Clingham. We’ve never thought of it before, but in many ways, the combination of Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim is a marriage made in heaven – the Scandinavian gloom is perfect fodder for Sondheim’s mordant style. Based on Bergman’s film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, which also provided the source material for Woody Allen’s ‘Midsummer Night’s sex comedy’, the plot is surprisingly comedic, with a relatively happy ending. But let’s not confuse a lighthearted tone with an uplifting one – here is the enjoyment is strictly the cruel one of revelling in human folly, as a series of mismatched couples are rearranged into slightly less unsatisfactory pairings.
The plot gives us an intricate web of interlocking love triangles, with each participant hopelessly self-obsessed. Played out over a midsummer weekend where even the refusal of the sun to set on the longest day is a source of frustration, in all senses, Hugh Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics are at their best when forensically dissecting the darkest of human emotions. Don’t be fooled by ‘Send in the Clowns’, the songs go to some pretty dark, mostly misogynist places. We have Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged husband who is trying to work out how to get his virginal young wife to sleep with him; the pompous count Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm whose song ‘In Praise of Women’ is distinctly praise of the faint kind; and the deliciously wicked ‘wonderful’ in which both of them bemoan in different ways the perfection of their shared mistress, actress Desiree Armfeldt, wishing she had been ‘jaded’, ‘fat’ or even ‘dead’. Even the vaguely romantic ‘remember’ has a sting in the tale as it trails off with ‘I think it was you’. Of course all of this is wrapped up in some of them most exquisite melodies and the genius of the different pairings is a delight, particularly the trio of Fredrik, his wife and son ‘Now/soon/later’, and the duet between the wives ‘Every day a little death’, not to mention the bitter-sweet ‘You must meet my wife’.
The cast is a strong one. As Desiree Armfeldt, Sarah Wadell, last seen by us as Jack (and the beanstalk’s) mother in Into the Woods, couldn’t be more different, with a ditzy self-deprecating charm and genuine sense of farce (yes, she does have to sing ‘that song’) which brings some warmth to the bed-hopping antics. As the count, Samuel Baker is absolutely bristling with pomposity, but just dashing enough for us to believe he might have been a bit of a catch once. Jamie Birkett as his long-suffering wife Charlotte has a gift for comedy, showing us a character, who though apparently bitter and deeply unhappy, is also a glutton for punishment, feeding on her own misery – and she has a lovely singing voice. As Fredrik Egerman, Alexander McMorran perfectly captures that passivity and indecisiveness that wreaks havoc whilst allowing the person responsible to remain apparently innocent and oblivious. With a nice touch of humour and frankness, he somehow gets away with it. Joshua Considine as the tortured step-son Henryk gives a subtle, layered performance. Desperate to appear profound, his journey towards the moment when he discovers the joys of being with a total air-head is a delight to watch. Of course all the women are either frigid or nymphomaniacs, and as the maid Jodie Beth Meyer certainly provides a burst of energy with her song which is a purely sexual interpretation of the motto ‘seize the day’.
The direction is slick and stylish, but bizarrely, considering it is such a small space, the ‘boudoir’ at the back seemed too far away at times, and we would have preferred to have the characters a bit freer to move to centre stage – the lyrics of Fredrik’s first song were drowned out by the musicians. Overall, though, this was a highly enjoyable and musically rich production, which brought out much of the humour, darkness and sheer silliness of the piece.