MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim book by George Furth.
Harold Pinter Theatre Panton Street SW1Y 4DN.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.45pm.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7622.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 2 May.
Triumphant backward roll.
Forget the faltering start Stephen Sondheim’s musical had at its 1981 New York premiere. Britain has always recognised its quality, in revivals at Manchester, Leicester, London or Mold. But Maria Friedman, directing from the strength of knowing Sondheim’s musicals from the inside as a performer, provides a superlative revival, reaching the West End from Southwark’s Chocolate Factory Theatre.
Surrounded by the people who always do surround showbiz success, Broadway composer Franklin Shepard is smilingly confident, until it becomes clear the two people he set-out closest to have, in the case of lyricist Charles Kringas, rejected a composer whose ideals have surrendered to commercial success, while Mary Flynn just about hangs around, an embittered alcoholic.
From this the life of mid-career Franklin spools back to earlier, poorer but more hopeful days, when he, Charley and Mary met as students on the night Sputnik passed overhead and it seemed everything would be possible.
Key moments of tension arrive as the Sheppard apartment becomes less affluent, and newer technologies disappear. Mark Umbers’ imposing Franklin becomes a more hesitant, hopeful version of his later self, head bent as if in supplication, seeking help, as choices which turn out harmful appear harmless.
Every wife who’ll divorce Franklin starts out impressed by him. Possibly the most glutinous of the arts-scene retinue, gushing Gussie Carnegie, is eventually revealed in origin as a silent, stooping secretary before she expands into celebrity, Gabriella Josefina catching both the woman who knows her place and the one who commands the room.
Dull though they are, it’s hard not to find sympathy for the Spencers, anti-metropolitan parents of Franklin’s first wife. Their feelings are genuine and not self-obsessed.
A chorus keeps asking Franklin, in accusatory manner, what’s happened to him. The sharp melodic lines are varied in Franklin’s commercial numbers, and all-round it’s a fine score (why do people claim Sondheim never writes tunes?). And, as the hangers-on disappear for the early years, Damian Humbley’s irony-prone Charley and Jenna Russell’s writer Mary play an increased part in the story, and show what might have been possible had conviction taken precedence over commerce.
Tyler: Ashley Robinson.
Terry/Mr Spencer: Martin Callaghan.
Scotty/Mrs Spencer: Amanda Minihan.
Dory/Evelyn: Julie Jupp.
Mary Flynn: Jenna Russell.
Ru: Matthew Barrow.
Franklin Shepard: Mark Umbers.
KT: Amy Ellen Richardson.
Jerome: Robbie Scotcher.
Meg Kincaid: Zizi Strallen.
Bunker/Newsman/Reverend: Kirk Patterson.
Gussie Carnegie: Josefina Gabrielle.
Newswoman/Waitress: Joanna Woodward.
Charley Kringas: Damian Humbley.
Joe Josephson: Glyn Kerslake.
Frank Junior: Noah Miller/Tommy Rodger/Joseph West.
Beth: Clare Foster.
Director: Maria Friedman.
Designer: Soutra Gilmour.
Lighting: David Hersey.
Sound: Gareth Owen.
Orchestrator: Jonathan Tunick.
Musical Supervisor/Director: Catherine Jayes.
Dance arranger: Jason Carr.
Choreographer: Tim Jackson.
Dance captain: Zizi Strallen.
Hair/Wigs: Richard Mowbey.
Fight director: Kate Waters.
Associate director: Adam Lenson.
Assistant director: Janet Behan.
Associate Musical director: Andy Rapps.