Sondheim’s 1970 concept musical, with book by George Furth, receives a welcome London revival in Joe Fredericks’ slickly staged and superbly sung production. However, one serious case of miscasting and a few dubious production choices prevent the show from fully illuminating the emotional complexity of Sondheim’s lyrics and score.
At the heart of the show is Bobby, surrounded by his married friends, resolutely single as his 35th birthday arrives. The danger of the role is that his self-induced stasis can easily make him seem a mere cipher: a successful Bobby must embody the contradictory feelings given voice in the number ‘Marry Me A Little.’ Unfortunately, Rupert Young isn’t able to pull it off. His Bobby is charismatic and believably detached, but doesn’t give enough sense of the character’s internal struggle. His emotional leap of faith, when it finally comes in ‘Being Alive’, therefore feels unearned, diminishing the potentially exhilarating impact of the show’s conclusion. Young’s job is made even more difficult by some of Fredericks’ more unnecessary interventions. Bobby is a character who already walks a fine line between ‘conflicted’ and ‘dickhead’: turning ‘Side by Side’ into a drug-fuelled fever dream wherein he snorts cocaine off of his mobile only serves to make him veer dangerously close to the latter.
Cassidy Janson gives the most vividly realised performance of the evening, seizing hold of the character’s lunacy with invigorating imagination
Fortunately, a supporting cast ranging from able to excellent anchors the action, bringing the gallery of Bobby’s friends and flings to colourful life. As Amy, Cassidy Janson gives the most vividly realised performance of the evening, seizing hold of the character’s lunacy with invigorating imagination. Katie Brayben’s take on April, one of Bobby’s conquests, is notably original: while most simply play the character’s idiocy, Brayben hits all the right comedic notes while letting us catch an endearing glimpse of April’s frustration with her own inarticulacy. In a role that is often show-stealing, Siobhan McCarthy’s Joanne is unusually restrained, but she offers a beautifully haunted version of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’.
The production design is appropriately stark; Mike Robertson’s lighting effectively aids atmosphere without intruding. Although the formations of Bobby’s friends along the back rostra quickly become repetitious, Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography has moments of enjoyable invention. Despite a leading man out of his depth, and a production that could do with more, Sondheim’s piercingly witty lyrics and brassily brilliant score survive intact and strongly delivered – and you couldn’t do much better than spend an evening in their company.
*** (3 stars)
Runs until 12th March