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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Garrick Theatre


  Alexander Hanson and Hannah Waddingham

The Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of the 1973 Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical was a delightful box of sweeties in the Southwark premiere last November. Trevor Nunn's production has moved uptown to the Garrick and it's no less toothsome a package of confectionary, despite a sound system that grates on the ear too much.

The composer described the show as whipped cream with knives, but I don't think he would approve the mist hovering around the forest being cut through with a jarring metallic edge on the over-amplified voices. This seems harsh in a house still small enough to preserve the intimacy and intensity of Nunn's version, beautifully established by the choric quintet who materialize as if by magic - and music - in the opening sequence.

Let's get the kvetching over with up front. I dislike Maureen Lipman's Madame Armfeldt while acknowledging her skill in dusting down the old trout's comic lines - she's much more a British Lady Bracknell than the mildewed, mittel-Europische chatelaine created by Hermione Gingold in London in 1975 or indeed Lila Kedrova in a fine Chichester revival in 1989.

And while eighteen year-old Jessie Buckley - who sprang to prominence on BBC Television's search for Nancy in Oliver! (she came third) - has much improved as the virginal child bride Anne since the Menier opening, she is still more technically gauche and nasally vocal than is good for her. Nunn has wisely dropped the superfluous valet's song, "Silly People" that didn't earn its keep at the Menier - the cast is virtually intact, though the eight-piece band playing Jason Carr's eloquent, inventive new orchestrations is sadly invisible (the musicians prove their existence by taking a curtain call). There is usually too much furniture in a Nunn production, too many scene changes, but here the designer David Farley has facilitated the coming and going of a large double bed, for instance, by adroit manipulation of the mirrored glass doors in Hartley T A Kemp's skilful half-lighting.

The theatre where Alexander Hanson's definitive lawyer Fredrik takes his young wife to see his old flame Desiree in a French play is conjured with a hint of box curtain and a small chandelier. A lovely touch I hadn't noted before: the nightshirt belonging to Desiree 's dreary dragoon, into which Hanson hops when its boring owner turns up, actually has epaulettes stitched on its stripy shoulders.

That dragoon is blissfully played by Alistair Robins in full blinkered red neck chauvinist mode - he even "forgives" his wife for all the trouble she's caused him with his adulterous timetable - and other performances coming up sharp and bright include Kelly Price as that long-suffering spouse and Gabriel Vick as the suicidal young seminarian stuck on (he realizes before it's too late) Anne -their awakening is heralded by Kaisa Hammarlund's glorious rendition of the live now, pay later "Miller's Son" song.

Ah, the music, all in three time, waltzes and polkas, ballads and choruses, all of a near-Mozartian complexity and bitter-sweet wittiness unrivalled even in Sondheim's own output. Wheeler's book, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night - which Nunn has absorbed anew, in tandem with working on a stage version of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage in the regions last year - is a perfect knit, so you feel you're watching a musical play as well as a play with music.

All the elements of drama, music, and plangency of tone with a cutting edge come together in Hannah Waddingham's Desiree


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