The world may have changed considerably since the premiere of Company in 1970 but two things are very much the same; first the unceasing expectation that all women in their 20s and 30s are desperate for marriage and children, and the second is audiences’ enduring love of Stephen Sondheim. Unsurprisingly, the two have often gone hand-in-hand, and as you age the meaning of Sondheim’s work seems to deepen as real life and expectation, truth and illusion start to diverge. Never really out of fashion, this last year major theatres were given an extraordinary reminder of the power of Sondheim’s work when the National Theatre revived Follies with a generation-defining production filled with bittersweet regret and heart-breaking poignancy. Now Marianne Elliott brings Company to the West End with a production that may well change the musical forever.
Gender-swapped productions are fairly commonplace in theatre-land but, as with Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse the trick is to use what could be a gimmick to reveal new and valuable insights into well-worn productions. But few so completely transform their original that seeing it for the first time you would never know it hadn’t been written that way, and it is the highest compliment to Elliott and her team that this version of Company, that plays with gender and sexuality, is not even seamless, it’s just entirely right, as though Sondheim had a female lead and at least one same-sex couple in mind when he put pen to paper more than four decades ago.
Elliott’s triumphant production works so well because the character of Bobbie makes perfect sense in 2018, and while a male protagonist would be fine, arguably the pressures on men to settle down in their mid-30s would feel considerably less convincing than it did in more conservative times. Biologically and socially, however, women are endlessly questioned and judged for their choices and, in a world that still encourages young women to only value their accomplishments if they manage to attract a partner, a 35-year old female Bobbie happily clinging to her single life while unduly pressured by her married friends feels incredibly pertinent and frustratingly familiar. All kinds of relationships are now acceptable with anyone, but a woman who wants to be single and childless is still an alarming prospect for a society peddling a Noah’s Ark mindset.
Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie just makes perfect sense and in Elliott’s production we see how feeling that external pressure at 35 becomes a moment for reflection and assessment of her life so far. What follows is a non-linear collection of scenes, fragments of information about the surrounding social structure which our beleaguered heroine steps in and out of – notably Bobbie is the only character not to use the door into the various family homes but breaks the imaginary fourth wall to step directly out of one scenario into another.
Sondheim uses the same technique he applied to Follies, merging memories with the present day, but has a thematic rather than a directly narrative purpose, asking the audience to see through Bobbie’s eyes as she tries to determine the pros and cons of a settled relationship. Each of the couples in her friendship group are given their own song and identity that takes Bobbie through the very different approaches on offer – from the sweet and devoted rough and tumble of Sarah and Harry who finish each other’s sentences, correct anecdote details and find time to wrestle while singing The Little Things You do Together, to the equally devoted marriage of Jenny and David who have a slightly different power balance, tempering their fun with sober restraint and responsibility, while Susan and Peter find themselves drifting apart.
Two very different models deliver more pathos, first with caustic friend Joanne, married for the third time to a younger man and refusing to believe he feels any genuine love for her (which he does), and finally same-sex couple Paul and his boyfriend Jamie who debates heading down the aisle in one of the show’s finest sequences ‘I’m Not Getting Married Today’. Each pairing has a moment in the spotlight and a theme song which whirl around Bobbie, leaving her feeling awkward, sad and a million miles from wanting to settle down herself.
Crucial to the success of what could be a rather choppy experience is Marianne Elliott’s overarching vision for the show, which, working with set and costumes designed by Bunny Christie, unifies the disparate elements to provide a memorable visual spectacle and an intimate story of one woman at a crisis point. Borrowing a touch of the Angels in America aesthetic, we see Bobbie’s bright, free, pink neon-lit world clashing with the warm pastel tones reserved for the couples, pulling our protagonist in opposing directions – towards and away from the life she has full of socialising, casual relationships and freedom, contrasted with the American ideal of domestic perfection represented in the pale cosiness of her friends’ houses. Bobbie, dressed in brightest red, stands in the middle weighing-up her true self against social expectation.
There are some wonderfully comic scenes as our heroine tries to choose between her three boyfriends. Together they sing the 50s-esque You Could Drive a Person Crazy delivering a routine inspired by wholesome girl-groups of the era, a nice piece of gender-mixed choreography to emphasise their subordinate role in Bobbie’s life. Individually they get a mini-storyline as Bobbie sizes them up for commitment and each time coming-up short. There is plenty of comedy in these scenarios as nervy in-flight steward Andy (Richard Fleesman), geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young) and self-loving rocker PJ (George Blagden) equally try to work out if Bobbie is the one for them.
Elliott’s direction smoothly charts a path between all of these varied narratives, moving interconnected neon-rimmed boxes together to create a continuous apartment, single rooms in multiple houses, a couple of subway carriages and even a whole terraced street. To see innovative stagecraft like this outside of somewhere like the National Theatre is really inspiring, and after the rather static Imperium here at the Gielgud over the summer, it is important to see that with a bit of imagination, even the oldest theatres can be transformed into vibrant, living spaces that serve the ends of the play rather than asking the work to adapt to the venue.
The performances are every bit as delightful and polished as the visual spectacle, with the cast creating a convincing set of well-worn friends who live vicariously through their singleton. Gathered for her birthday – a scene which punctuates the show – there is both a unity and in the individual scenes a love for Bobbie that goes hand-in-hand with the genuine concern for her future. But this is her show, and Rosalie Craig captures well the internal division in Bobbie’s mind, knowing that life she is living is the one for her, but nonetheless succumbing, at least momentarily, to the panic exerted by her friends.
Craig has a natural comic timing, often reacting with exasperation or awkwardness to the odd behaviour of those around her. A particularly entertaining scene in bed with Andy, sees Bobbie’s male friends perform Poor Baby / Tick Tock while she entices him to perform, all the while listening to the voices she thinks are in her head. The staging of the solos in a vast empty space are perhaps a little underwhelming, and while the point is that all the madness seeps away leaving Bobbie alone, they just lack dynamism. Craig performs them extremely well wringing full meaning from both Someone is Waiting and Marry Me a Little but visually they need a little help. The famous finale Being Alive is wonderful though and Craig builds to it through the show and within the song musing on the emotional shelter Bobbie has created around herself and where she goes from here.
Apart from a few well-timed lines, it’s not until quite near the end of the show that the audience gets to see Patti Lupone’s Joanne at close quarters in the song Ladies Who Lunch. It’s a lovely crowd-pleaser for fans of the eminent Broadway star, but Lupone isn’t in Company to rest on her laurels, bringing a poignancy that fleshes out a relatively small support role. The hard exterior and feigned exhaustion with society is clearly just armour in Lupone’s performance, protecting her from the deep vulnerability that comes from truly loving Larry (Ben Lewis) and fear of ever losing him.
Each of the couples is equally memorable; as expected Mel Giedroyc hits all the comic beats as Sarah while Gavin Spokes reveals a wonderful voice as he continues his West End success as Harry, after appearing as Major Ingram in Quiz earlier this year. Jennifer Saayeng’s sensible Jenny has one eye on adult responsibility keeping husband David (Richard Henders) from having too much fun, alongside Daisy Mawood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter keeping up appearances as their marriage crumbles.
In a production that has shaken-up the way we look at established musical characters, it is Jonathan Bailey playing the gender-swapped Jamie that almost steals the entire show. Such a wonderful performer capable of great depth and sensitivity as the beautiful The York Realist at the Donmar showed earlier this year, Bailey’s big moment happens when his character gets cold feet on his wedding day. An absolute joy delivered at breath-taking speed reflecting Jamie’s desperate panic, and several attempts to hide in various unlikely kitchen crannies, Bailey deservedly receives a big ovation for a wonderful number that leaves you wanting more.
It may lack the desperate ache of Follies, but this version of Company may well change the musical forever – where it works for the story, gender and sexuality in classic musicals could become more fluid, allowing theatre-makers free reign to reimagine well-known shows for a new generation. Like Shakespeare, Sondheim deals with universal experiences and emotions, giving his work a timelessness and broad applicability that not only makes Elliott’s imaginative production entirely consistent with Sondheim’s original intent, it is also a great night out.