On the day that I saw the Southwark Playhouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s 1970 musical Company (the theatre’s first musical in its 15 year history), The Guardian was full of advice on how to have an amicable divorce. The married friends of the protagonist, Bobby (Rupert Young) extol the virtues of marriage, but the question remains, would anyone really want to be like them?
Company is an interesting example of whether a piece that is very much rooted in its time has resonance and longevity. The thoughts summed up in Being Alive are timeless, but particular values less so. This was the first plotless non-revue musical and although the songs include some outstanding character pieces, George Furth’s book is a case of stylisation over substance and doesn’t match the sharpness of Sondheim’s lyrics. Furth tries to deliver one zinger after another, but it often feels forced. While I have a lot of time for Fosca, that walking bundle of angst in Passion, my patience with the neuroses of affluent and rather shrill Manhattanites is more limited.
Joe Fredericks transports the piece to the present day and the presence of laptops and iPhones was fine. The dated feeling comes more from the fact that in 1970, one was considered middle aged at 35. I frequently question the need for microphones in small venues and the wires were a little distracting when Robert and his girlfriends took their shirts off. Not everyone sounds like an American, let alone a New Yorker, and the pauses for applause aren’t conducive to making an already fragmented piece flow. However, Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography is niftily manic and the rumbling sounds from the trains overhead give a nice authenticity to this bustling “city of strangers”.
Rupert Young’s oily Bobby was always ‘Robert’ for me. It’s a valid directorial choice to portray him as an enigma, but Young’s Bobby never really responds to anything, and his same-y delivery quickly becomes tiresome. While his vocal performance improves over the course of the evening, his Bobby hasn’t earned the optimism that Being Alive evokes.
There are some excellent individual performances, particularly from the women: Siobhan McCarthy’s Joanne is appropriately vodka stinger soaked, and Michelle Bishop has the right kind of brassiness as Robert’s fun-seeking girlfriend Marta, determined to make the most of what New York City has on offer (she may well be the most sensible person in the piece). Cassidy Janson is delightful as the jittery bride-to-be Amy and delivers the terrific patter song Getting Married Today with great aplomb – it’s one number in which applause at the end is justified. Laura Main also brings a lot of sparkle to the small role of the gracious Southern Belle Susan – a pity she doesn’t have a solo as I’m a big fan of her voice.
There are countless books, films and plays about women who can’t possibly be fulfilled because they haven’t got a man; single men who are defined by their marital status are rarer creatures. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like Bobby, but this production doesn’t really give the audience the chance to empathise with him or understand why his friends find him so fascinating. These are friends best enjoyed from a distance – I’m not sure if I’d want their company in real life.
Company plays at the Southwark Playhouse until March 12th. For more information and tickets, please visit its website.