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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Harold Pinter Theatre


  Ph: Tristram Kenton

In November 1981, the 16th and final performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along ended with a curtain call awash with onstage tears. We sat there helpless, watching the lives of two-dozen Broadway neophytes crumble around them. It felt like an all too real parody of the show’s “life’s a bitch” themes of decimated hopes, crushed dreams and eroded expectations.
The West End transfer of the show’s most recent incarnation had already been a huge success in the cramped, out of the way Menier Chocolate Factory. Now, 31 years after its initial Broadway disaster, it is in full flood. This time around the only curtain call tears come from a beaming Jenna Russell, who knows she’s just given the performance of her life. And unlike 1981’s desolate crowd, we’re on our feet and cheering.
The show’s opening scene is set in 1976, at a Hollywood party hosted by mega-successful Franklin Shepard, composer turned film producer. Everyone in the room is vain and on the make. Frank’s second wife, a former Broadway headliner who is now deemed too “mature” to play the sex kitten in his most recent movie, is seething. Frank’s new starlet girlfriend has an IQ smaller than her bust measurement. His lawyer is snorting cocaine. Mary, Frank’s oldest friend, is literally falling down drunk and spouting the sorts of lacerating truths that are too close to the bone to be said out loud.
How could any audience want to spend the next two and a half hours in the company of these despicable self-deluded people? Of course, this is where the gimmick kicks in. Scene by scene, step by step, erasure by erasure, we travel backwards from this Bel Air debacle to a 1957 New York rooftop where Frank and his buddy Charlie first meet Mary as they all eagerly anticipate an initial glimpse of Sputnik traversing the nighttime sky. An ache of anticipation suffuses this final scene. Because we’ve already been shown where this is going, we want to reach out and warn this trio of idealists before the train crash of life smashes into them.
Fine performances are turned in by all. Mark Umbers as Frank manages to show how and why this one-time charmer turns hard and uncaring. It’s a fine balancing act between past and present that he achieves with aplomb. Damian Humbley plays Charlie, Frank’s belligerently uncompromising lyricist. He’s pudgy and unkempt – a badge of his disregard for other people’s proprieties. Charlie’s panicked attack against Frank during a 1973 TV program is one of the show’s highpoints. This is Sondheim at his clever patter song best. Both Russell, as the sadly self-destructive Mary, and Josefina Gabrielle, as the brittle Gussie, Frank’s second wife, encompass the pains involved in loving the wrong man.
The sets and costumes are by Soutra Gilmour. Time after time you look at the clothes and groan at what once was the height of fashion. The choreography by Tim Jackson does its own time-tripping via some Bob Fosse riffs. A special nod needs to go to the very busy Richard Mawbey for the dozens of wigs that help delineate the show’s timeframe so accurately. In the pit, conductor Catherine Jayes and her band (no strings) are completely exhilarating.
In between the original Broadway flop and this new London success, Sondheim and writer George Furth put a lot of work into several revisions, including a staging at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000. Among its four Olivier Awards was one for Daniel Evans as Charlie. He would go on to win another Olivier when the Menier production of Sunday in the Park with George transferred to the West End in 2007. Joining him in that transfer was Jenna Russell (she also won an Olivier for her performance).
Merrily We Roll Along marks a splendidly adept directorial debut from Maria Friedman, who has her own Sondheim Olivier for her performance as Fosca in the 1997 production of Passion. Her co-star then was Michael Ball. He’s just won his Sondheim Olivier for Sweeney Todd.
Care to guess who will be on the list of this season’s nominees?


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