Watermill Theatre - A Little Night Music
27th July to 16th September 2017
Review from Newbury Theatre.
The opening waltz of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with partners swapping frantically, gives us a hint of the antics to come, worthy of a Feydeau farce.
Madame Armfeldt, the doyenne of the family, lives with her granddaughter Fredrika and gets occasional visits from her daughter Desirée, Fredrika’s mum, who is a famous actress. Solicitor Fredrik Egerman lives with his wife Anne and son Henrik. So far so good, but Fredrik gets tickets for him and Anne to see a play starring Desirée which brings back memories for him (and Desirée) of the affair they had 14 years ago. Oh, by the way, Fredrika is about 13; the hint’s in the name. Fredrik is not getting what he needs at home; Anne is 18 and still a virgin although they’ve been married 11 months, so he sneaks off to see Desirée where his needs are met but there is a post-coital interruption from Count Carl-Magnus who is Desirée’s current (married) lover and not best pleased. With me so far?
Added to that, Henrik is trying to get off with the, ahem, very experienced maid Petra (who seems to come from Northern Ireland), and the Count’s wife Charlotte unburdens herself to Anne and tells her that Fredrik and Desirée are at it again. And that’s just Act One, which ends with a rousing rendering of A Weekend in the Country, setting the scene for Act Two in Madame’s house.
Although it’s a musical, verging on an operetta, you can see there’s quite a lot of plot to fit in, and the large cast of 13 actor/musicians do it with gusto. The two main characters are Fredrik (Alastair Brookshaw) and Desirée (Josefina Gabrielle) and they’re brilliant, with great chemistry between them (except when he’s telling her You Must Meet My Wife!). Their doubts emerge in Act Two, culminating in a touching version of Send in the Clowns.
Alex Hammond gives a fine comic portrayal of the dim but belligerent Count, and there are strong performances from Dillie Keane as Madame, with her reminiscences of a string of high-ranking lovers, Phoebe Fildes as the Countess, Benedict Salter as Henrik – a difficult part to play – and Christina Tedders as Petra. The black-clad characters coming on from time to time like a Greek chorus was a nice touch.
Director Paul Foster manages to make sense out of the potential chaos, and the complex lighting plot from Howard Hudson adds to the atmosphere.
It was great fun and highly entertaining, but for me there was one big problem: the music often drowned the singing; such a shame to miss Sondheim’s great lyrics. Maybe it was where I was sitting, maybe it was too many players on stage at the same time, maybe it was the way the actors were miked up, but I’ve never had this problem with musicals at the Watermill before.
Review from The Times.
Sondheim affair is note perfect but lacks passion
This is the first time that Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music has been performed by actor-musicians and you can see why the Watermill wanted to do it. This small theatre, which feels like an idyllic rural retreat that just happens to have a stage, has had huge success with such productions, not least with its 2004 Sweeney Todd that transferred to the West End and Broadway.
Hugh Wheeler wrote the original script for A Little Night Music, framed around a plot inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 heady film comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, which was set at the turn of the last century and follows the affairs of a group of well-to-do types (and their servants) on a lovely summer’s night in Sweden.
There’s the middle-aged lawyer Fredrik, here played by a fastidious Alastair Brookshaw, and his 18-year-old wife Anne (Lucy Keirl) who, after 11 months of marriage, remains a virgin. His son, the neurotic Henrik, is in love with Anne. Fredrik, meanwhile, adores his former mistress, the actress Desiree, played with wonderful poise by Josefina Gabrielle. She already has a lover, the bumptious Count (Alex Hammond) who (of course) has a scheming wife (Phoebe Fildes). It’s exhausting even charting their movements, much less their instruments. I was thinking that Benedict Salter as Henrik seemed stilted but then it can’t be easy acting with a cello round your neck. Musicals are always a triumph of fantasy over reality but it’s especially tricky to carry this off: it’s one thing to burst into song, quite another to do so while toting a flute (Anne) or a trumpet (Fredrik). No wonder their marriage remains unconsummated: they are too busy co-ordinating musical notes.
The matriarch, Madame Armfeldt, mother of Desiree, is played by Dillie Keane with aplomb. It is fun to look over to the side of the set and spot her playing the snare drum. She is full of Wildean witticisms: “To lose a lover or two, over a lifetime, is vexing but to lose one’s teeth is a catastrophe!”
Paul Foster directs and Sarah Travis provides the musical supervision. The music is note perfect and the harmonies mesh but the production doesn’t engage as it should, particularly in the first half, which often seemed a bit stolid. The second perked up, particularly the wonderfully modern dinner party scene, just one of the many transformations of David Woodhead’s traditional but effective set.
At times this production does work, intricately, beautifully, but too often it slips into something that is more workaday. The moon needs to smile just a little more on this.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Watermill lights up the night
A Little Night Music, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday September, 16
A glittering chandelier hangs over the stage, illuminating Madame Armfeldt's country house. It is a sign of what is to come in this dazzling production of Stephen Sondheim's story of tangled lives and loves that begins with a young girl symbolically adjusting the characters in a miniature theatre.
Suddenly everything goes black, before the stage explodes with wild, extravagant music, dance and song from the actor/musicians. Slightly bewildered, I began to wonder if this was for me, but that feeling was very shortly kicked out of the room and I was utterly hooked till the final bows.
The dialogue is gloriously funny. Dillie Keane as the crippled Madame Armfeldt has many of the best lines and knows exactly how to deliver them. Madame has taken charge of her granddaughter Fredrika (Tilly-Mae Millbrook) to whom she dispenses advice by the bucketful, including an admonition to save the best Champagne for her funeral.
Fredrika's mother Desiree (Josefina Gabrielle) is an actress who has seen better times and, following in her mother's footsteps, a long history of liaisons. One of these was with middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Alastair Brookshaw), who brings his young wife Anne (Lucy Keirl) to see Desiree in a play. When Desiree and Fredrik meet again and she learns that his wife of 11 months is still a virgin, she agrees to one more 'favour for an old friend'.
Meanwhile, naive, exuberant Anne is unaware that Fredrik's son, Henrik (Benedict Salter) is in love with her and that her husband has strayed. Another of Desiree's lovers, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Alex Hammond), is fiercely jealous of Fredrik, while his wife Countess Charlotte (Phoebe Fildes) is determined to teach her wandering husband a lesson.
There is much more music and humour from these gifted musicians before this tangled knot is unravelled and love finally prevails.
If you have only heard Send in the Clowns sung in isolation, you will be immensely moved by Gabrielle's heart-rending, wry reflection on life. An unforgettable performance.
While this is the song most connected with the show, there are many more gems. Among them are Fredrik's You Must Meet My Wife, sung to an entertainingly underwhelmed Desiree, the joyous A Weekend in the Country and Christina Tedders as sexy maid, Petra, warning it's a very short road 'from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch' in The Miller's Son.
A Little Night Music, directed by Paul Foster, is a funny, elegant (the costumes are superb) production about human relationships. The large cast not only bring the characters to vivid life, but do so while making fantastic music, supervised and arranged by Sarah Travis.
See it and marvel.
There are reviews from The Stage ("immaculate... Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet musical masterpiece is revived with intoxicating stylishness" - 5 stars), WhatsOnStage ("this stunning realisation of a work that is at once elegiac, knowing and sexy"), TheReviewsHub ("the cast delivers georgeously... beautifully crafted" - 4 stars), Jonathan Baz ("an extraordinarily talented musical theatre company... quite probably the best musical to have recently opened in the UK... truly unmissable musical theatre" - 5 stars), Musical Theatre Review ("this immaculate revival of surely one of the most perfect pieces of musical theatre ever written is worth going a long way to see" - 5 stars).