Watermill - Merrily We Roll Along
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Watermill - Merrily We Roll Along

16th January to 8th March 2008.

From The Times.

Three stars
Music theatre was deservedly a much-admired strand of the late Jill Fraser's Watermill programming. Fraser's close working relationship with the director John Doyle produced some of the theatre's greatest critical and commercial hits, in particular a staging of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd that transferred to the West End and Broadway. Now, in what would have been Fraser's retirement year, Doyle returns to the Watermill one last time. The choice of another Stephen Sondheim piece, his 1981 work about friendship, loyalty and creative endeavour, is in some respects poignantly apt.

But Sondheim's complex, cleverly structured musical is also about American social change, and Doyle's production lacks context.

In Liz Ascroft's bare-bones design, a musical manuscript is the scenic backdrop to a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a piano. As George Furth's book travels backwards in time from 1980 to 1957 - when the friendship of the three fledgling artists Frank, Charley and Mary, is forged - tape spools and unspools, speeding forwards, rewinding with a whir, falling tangled to the floor. The black-and-white-clad cast - in Doyle's trademark style, musicians as well as actor-singers - are harshly lit by Tim Mitchell so that their pallid faces are deeply shadowed.

They look like ghosts trapped in the limbo of the regretful memories of the middle-aged Frank, who has achieved mainstream material success without contentment.

But there's little sense that political, as well as personal, idealism is being eroded on the reverse journey from the wonderment the three young friends experience at their first glimpse of Sputnik to the ostentatious Tinseltown bash at the show's beginning.

Doyle's staging chiefly places Sam Kenyon's Frank at the piano, watching his life replayed before him. This underlines the way in which the character, a gifted composer, accesses his emotions through his music; unfortunately, it also means that the audience spends a lot of time looking at the back of Kenyon's head.

Nonetheless he is engaging, as is Thomas Padden as the bitterly frustrated and betrayed Charley. And if Kenyon doesn't quite display the charisma that makes him irresistible to the hopelessly devoted Mary, as well as to the young wife he cheats on and the ageing Broadway star he cheats with, those women are played with effective intensity.

Elizabeth Marsh's intelligent Mary has huge haunted eyes and a warm self-deprecation that turns to icy fury. Rebecca Jackson is sad and silkily seductive as Gussie, and Joanna Hickman's sweetly trusting Beth turns spiteful, agonised avenger in the wake of Frank's infidelity.

Doyle's production doesn't break your heart, but those performances bruise it.

SAM MARLOWE

From the Telegraph.

This most poignant of musicals also marks the end of an era at the beautiful Watermill Theatre in Newbury.

It was originally planned as the retirement production of Jill Fraser, the Watermill's indefatigable artistic director, who over 25 years turned the tiny theatre into one of the most exciting in the country. In particular, she nurtured the careers of Edward Hall and his acclaimed all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, and John Doyle, who, after decades of running regional theatres, discovered a new way of presenting classic musicals at Newbury using a company who doubled as actors and musicians.

Some of his shows, most notably Sweeney Todd, transferred to the West End, then to Broadway, and Doyle is now one of the most sought-after directors in New York.

Jill died almost two years ago, and a new artistic director, Hedda Beeby, has just taken over. A lively season is planned for the spring, but this production, with which Doyle is marking his own farewell the Watermill, feels like a celebration of good times past.

Not that it is a conventional celebration. Merrily We Roll Along was one of Sondheim's most famous flops, running for just 16 performances after it opened on Broadway in 1981, and its mood is notably sour and astringent.

Based on a 1930s play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, it follows a group of hopeful young college graduates, two of whom want to write musicals, from 1957 to 1976. But there is a twist. The show begins in 1976, and gradually works backwards in time. So we watch everything knowing how it all ended up, with friendships broken, idealism betrayed and marriages on the rocks. The resilient youth and hope of the characters in the last scene becomes almost unbearably poignant because we know what is to follow.

Doyle directs with superb assurance on the pocket-handkerchief stage, which leaves no room for dance numbers but allows us to concentrate on the bittersweet moods of the music, the wry, dry wit and piercing melancholy of the lyrics, and above all the sharp evocation of character through song.

The opening scene, in which our composer hero Frank is celebrating a new career as a film producer, captures an unforgettable impression of the bitterness and bitchiness that underlie the festivities, and there is real rawness in the portrayal of friendship betrayed.

The company is one of the finest Doyle has assembled at the Watermill, with many familiar faces and a superb assurance in acting, singing and musicianship. There is clever use of lighting to make the characters look haggard and sinister in the early scenes (which show their later years) and a constant tension is maintained in the relationships.

As Frank, Sam Kenyon has that mixture of smooth blandness and utter ruthlessness that seems essential to anyone wanting to get to the top, while Thomas Padden is touchingly aggrieved and nerdy as the lyricist collaborator he sells out.

The best performances, though, come from the women, with Elizabeth Marsh bracingly bitter as the alcoholic writer Mary, who holds a torch for Frank, and from Rebecca Jackson as a raddled and manipulative Broadway star.

What a bittersweet ending this proves to a decade of glorious musical theatre at the Watermill.

CHARLES SPENCER

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Thanks for the memories

End of an era as director John Doyle makes his farewell to The Watermill with Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until March 8

If there's thing to be sure of with Stephen Sondheim, it is that you can expect the unexpected.

For those who like their musicals full of colour, elaborate sets, flouncy dresses and constant exits and entrances, Merrily We Roll Along, directed by John Doyle, thus fulfilling a promise made to the late, great, Jill Fraser, would not tick these boxes.

On the other hand, the nine superb actor-musicians, all of whom remain on stage throughout, produce a torrent of music and song, cleverly arranged by Catherine Jayes, which is often more interesting than many a facile tune elsewhere.

Fame and fortune have come to composer Frank (Sam Kenyon), but his pursuit of them has left a trail of unhappiness including a broken marriage to Beth (Joanna Hickman) and the betrayal of his friendship with Mary (Elizabeth Marsh) and Charley (Thomas Padden), his former collaborators.

Revealing the wrong decisions taken, the story reels backwards over the years enhanced by cleverly specific highlighting.

Along the way are memorably impassioned performances from the trio of ex-friends, the seductive Gussie (Rebecca Jackson) and from Beth, replying to Frank questioning whether she still loves him, in the poignant Not A Day Goes By.

Sondheim himself intended Merrily as a musical comedy and indeed it is, mixed with broken hearts and shattered friendships and directed by John Doyle, as he said in Friday's talkback, from the psychological viewpoint rather than the brash.

There are bitchily funny one-liners from Mary in the first half and gems in the dialogue throughout if you are quick enough to catch them.

The only song which allowed Friday's audience to applaud - elsewhere the action and sound was so slick and fast there was no opportunity to do so - was Bobbie and Jackie and Jack, a hilarious take on the Kennedy dynasty and Jackie's plans to bring style to the White House.

The story ends in the 1950s, when friendships would last forever and life was bursting with dreams to be fulfilled.

Merrily We Roll Along is John Doyle's personal farewell to The Watermill. He leaves behind a host of wonderful musical memories of which the latest forms a strikingly clever, but different part.

One for the connoisseur.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From Newbury Theatre.

Sondheim’s musical was a flop when it opened on Broadway in 1981, but numerous revivals since then have had more success. So after John Doyle’s spectacular success with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the hopes were high for this, which is to be Doyle’s last production for the Watermill.

The story doesn’t have much going for it. In 1957, three friends graduate, full of ideals and optimism. Over the years they achieve success but the idealism gives way to disillusionment. The genius – some would say the gimmick – of Merrily We Roll Along is that the action takes place in reverse, starting in 1976 and finishing in 1957. This turns it into a sort of detective story, as bits of what you’ve already seen become clear in the light of subsequent (that is, previous) events. Confused? Well, you will be if you don’t concentrate hard during the early scenes. This may not appeal to everybody, but I found it totally gripping.

The musical is a collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, based on an earlier play of the same name. The songs are largely unmemorable, but nonetheless poignant and appropriate, and  blend well with the story. As usual, the cast are accomplished musicians as well as actors.

The three friends, Frank (Sam Kenyon), Mary (Elizabeth Marsh) and Charley (Thomas Padden) all gave impressive performances; Mary becoming a cynical and world-weary theatre critic, Frank hugely successful on Broadway but dissatisfied with his empty life, Charley frustrated at playing second fiddle to Frank.

There were strong performances too from Joanna Hickman as Beth, Frank's first wife, and Rebecca Jackson as Gussie, his next lover.

To take up so much of the Watermill’s tiny stage with a grand piano seemed like a mistake and made the production seem unnecessarily cramped.

The verdict then: the high quality of the acting (as you would expect from the Watermill) transcends any niggles about the production, and the fascination of the backwards story (if you haven’t got a happy ending, finish with a happy beginning), combined with the fact that it’s John Doyle’s last Watermill production, make this a show you shouldn’t miss.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Guardian.

Three stars
In Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, an elderly man rewinds time by playing the tapes recorded by his younger self. In John Doyle's elegant yet uncompromising revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1981 flop, 40-year-old Frank, enjoying the greatest success of his life as a Hollywood producer, spools back through his life, finally reaching the moment in 1959 when as a penniless, idealistic composer he stood on a New York rooftop with his friends by his side and the world at his feet.

Sondheim's musical works backwards in time, but in Doyle's production - as in Beckett's play - the power and poignancy reside in the way past and present continually confront each other. Here, they sit side by side at a piano. As the years unravel (depicted by a piece of recording tape threaded through the fingers of one of the characters in each scene), a white light as insistent as a searchlight periodically falls on Frank's face. As the years fall away, he not only looks increasingly youthful, but he also looks more and more like a corpse.

Because of its backwards momentum, Sondheim's rueful tale of lost ideas and betrayed friendships is full of ghosts. The demands of the Watermill's tiny stage, and Doyle's use of performers who simultaneously act, sing and play, mean the ghosts are a rowdy bunch. They batter as insistently at Frank as Dickens' ghosts attack Scrooge, but here there is no redemption. Liz Ashcroft's simple, musical manuscript design suggests Frank is simply trampling on his own talent. As, in pursuit of success, he betrays his friends - Mary who loves him, his writing partner Charley, and his wife Beth, discarded for Broadway diva Gussie - they attack their instruments with gusto. At one point, Beth plays the cello as if she is sawing off her husband's head.

This flawed musical may not count among Sondheim's finest, but Doyle brings book, score and staging together to create an evening of psychological complexity and emotional power. Sam Kenyon as Frank is terrific, but then so is everyone else. Doyle's farewell to the Watermill is not just a great night out, but a blazing tribute to the late, great Jill Fraser, the Watermill's former artistic director, who had the rare gift of not just spotting talent but making the very best of it.

LYN GARDNER

From the Sunday Times.

Three stars
John Doyle’s production crackles with confidence, intelligence, edgy humour and that acid but generous irony of which Stephen Sondheim is such a master. George Furth’s book tells its stories backwards, from bleak and bitter disillusionment to starry-eyed ambition. Frank (Sam Kenyon), a budding composer, and Charley (Thomas Padden), a lyricist, begin at college and reach the perilous peaks of A-list Broadway. On the way, hearts, promises, marriages and friendships are broken. Sondheim’s mellow tones and sharp dissonances combine deep feeling and vitriolic observation, and his lyrics sparkle with kindness and biting Manhattan wit. How Doyle managed to recruit 12 attractive actors who can all sing, play instruments and act, I cannot imagine. They work together like an experienced chamber orchestra. For Hedda Beeby, the new artistic director, this is a promising start.

JOHN PETER

There are reviews in the Oxford Times ("the whole 12-strong cast does John Doyle's ten-year Watermill record, and Jill Fraser's memory, proud "), at The Stage ("Doyle’s company apply themselves to the task with considerable gusto and occasional finesse "), at Reviews Gate ("enjoy it while you can").