With the return of Aspects of Love to the West End for the first time in decades, Michael Ball continues a professional journey back through the shows that made him. Starting with the Les Miserables Staged Concert in 2019 in which Ball took on the role of Javert and then to Hairspray in 2021 with Ball once again playing Edna Turnblad, the decision to revisit another of his early formative productions, albeit in another role, and the song with which he is still most associated – Love Changes Everything – seems part of a particular trajectory through the roles and music that have shaped his career. Aspects of Love is based on a English novella by David Garnett written in the 1950s, an episodic and sweeping narrative that starts with a love triangle which then becomes a square and possibly a hexagon with people swapping lovers while keeping far too much of it in the family.
As an Andrew Lloyd Webber sung-through musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, this show has always had its problems, several of which have delayed revivals while other Lloyd Webber musicals have found a different resonance in recent years in the hands of a new generation of directors. Aspects of Love was revived in both 2010 at the Menier Chocolate Factory and at Southwark Playhouse in 2019 but has never seemed able to overcome its problematic source material about a collection of slightly icky love affairs. Large age gaps between consenting adults may be a feature of literature from Jane Austen’s Mr Knightly and Emma to Daphne Du Maurier’s Max de Winter and his second wife, but with Aspects of Love placing impressionable teenagers in the mix who form attachments to people decades older than they are, writers may have got away that in the 1950s and even when the musical first appeared in the 1980s, but with a much greater understanding of sexual power and coercion, it feels considerably more uncomfortable now.
A feature of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, there is a tendency to overuse the same refrain, limiting the score to a few melodies that recur often throughout the show just with different lyrics. Aspects of Love is perhaps one of the worst offenders with the music for Love Changes Everything, Anything But Lonely, The First Man You Remember and particularly Seeing is Believing repeated often throughout the show. These four songs alone make up the majority of the score and they are lush, beautiful, romantic melodies that have a considerable life of their own beyond this musical, appearing frequently in concerts, albums and cabaret evenings, but they are the backbone of the 2.5 hour production so expect to hear them often.
Jonathan Kent’s revival running at the Lyric Theatre has, then, had some hard thinking to do about how to manage a dubious plot line in the Second Act and how to deliver a story that travels from Paris to a villa in Pau and later to Venice while keeping track of its characters interwoven love lives for nearly 20-years. Set designer John McFarlane has developed a creative solution to the rapidly changing locations using a combination of multiple revolving discs in the centre of the performance space, a moving fly screen that travels across the stage and a series of projected painterly backdrops and screens that create the impression of the verdant countryside at the villa which appeals to each of the characters in turn.
There is something of Sunday in the Park with George about the approach here with McFarlane working closely with video designer Douglas O’Connell to project artistic renderings of key backdrops that suit both the period setting which ranges from the late 1940s to the 1960s, and the chief occupation of Uncle George, a celebrated painter, and main love interest Rose, an actor. At the villa O’Connell projects dense impressionistic painted foliage stretching for miles, providing the substance behind McFarlane’s minimalist staging, just a suggestion of doors and a piece of furniture or two to imply the scale and perfect situation of the villa. The moving fly screen guides the audience to new locations, onto which O’Connell projects impressions of city life for Paris, pigeons for St Mark’s Square and an assortment of mountain scenes when returning to Pau.
And sometimes this creates absorbing impressions as trees and vegetation grow across the stage, filling what is a large space with a feeling of abundant nature as Rose and Alex first fall in love at the start of the story. Occasionally a semi-transparent front curtain is used to give depth to the projections – similar to Akram Khan’s Jungle Book: Reimagined at Sadler’s Wells – in which different animation appears at the front and back of the stage to add extra romanticism. But domestic scenes are not neglected; George’s Italian sculptor lover Giulietta is given a magnificent room overlooking the Venetian canals largely created by O’Connell’s painterly images, while George’s own Paris flat is beautifully implied and well appointed with a tasteful street-scene sketch through an expensive-looking window.
Arguably the early scenes in Paris in Rose’s dressing room and at the bar she takes Alex too seem a little flat, large black spaces that make the production seem semi-staged at first. There are nice touches including a moving train carriage as the early lovers escape to the country and clearly the creative team are saving the splendor for later in the show, but these early sections slightly suffer, looking a little lost on the large stage. But through these scene changing tools, Kent is able to give the production an easy flow, actively gliding between scenes in moments as unobserved stage hands replace furniture and reposition props in the few moments it takes the moving fly to traverse the stage.
Aspects of Love is by nature a very ‘bitty’ story that looks at different relationship angels and several different menages a trois – Alex-George-Rose being the through-line but George-Rose-Giulietta as well as Alex-Rose and Rose’s daughter Jenny being a problematic addition. The show must also cover many years in the seconds between scenes, none of which is specifically announced in the songs or signaled in the staging, emerging through the action and costume (also by McFarlane) and leaving the audience to work out the time elapsed and how characters align with one another since their last meeting.
Kent navigates all of that really well, creating just the right amount of sweep, capturing the light-heartedness of these changing love affairs, particularly among the artistic characters who trade partners easily and seem to fall in and out of love quite as soon as someone else shows an interest in them. But there is also a sense of the deep impression that love makes on the individuals, the intensity of youthful infatuation that shapes Alex in particular in which the memory of first love is forever intermingled with the villa location and his feeling for Rose even years later. There’s a really strong contrast between the wildness and irresponsibility of young love, an imagined, romantic and impractical feeling that can only last a moment and the more adult grounded affection that exists between Rose and George, an affection that is somehow more accepting of the failings and needs of the other.
And so to the more complex question of Jenny and her troublesome relationship with much older cousin Alex. There have been some important changes to this story but the subplot has not been reworked completely (or arguably enough) with several important consequences. Much of the original concept is retained, Alex watches Jenny grow up and is tempted by her ardent affection for him, one which she shamelessly flaunts in front of her parents. The second part of the show explores the corruption of love and the darker, more complicated desires it evokes – impulses that make Alex’s character, now around 35 years old, quite murky. The audience knows by this point that he has already had a long obsessive affair with Jenny’s mother that was consummated, he and Jenny are first cousins and he has played a semi-parental role in her upbringing, living with them since she was 12 years old. Alex does resist for a while but it is definitely icky.
None of this is altered in this updated production, but Kent and his team have made some amendments to the scenario, making Jenny slightly older than in Garnett’s version at the point her infatuation declares itself and excising the final song, putting an alternative and more ambiguous ending in its place. It goes some way to addressing the deep-rooted issues in the plot but the result is to make Alex less sympathetic, no longer a lost boy still reeling from losing his first great love and turns him instead into an untrustworthy and slightly seedy rogue, led, as Jenny explains, by his physical needs above any true emotional commitment to the women he pursues or to the romantic ideals of a true love he once espoused. Is the show now saying that love is something grubby, miserable and ruinous? The message is less clear than it once was, but Alex is certainly no boyish hero.
Michael Ball’s return to this production is the main draw of course and one received with raptures by a delighted audience when it is George and not Alex who is given the chance to sing Love Changes Everything. An exquisite vocalist as always, Ball’s powerful vibrato reverberates around the auditorium. Not belted out with a passionate longing this time but a more somber reflection on a mature feeling and contentment that George discovers early in the show. Ball anchors the piece with a performance that allows the other characters to move around him. George is a man happy to take life as it comes, enjoy the pleasures where they exist and not expect too much from others or himself, but he grows across the years of the story and Ball charts his settling down to the comforts of a happy home life, a soulful existence in the countryside with his family and an ultimate goodness that create a big impression on those around him.
Laura Pitt Pulford is also perfectly cast as Rose, a woman driven by her career but also the desire for a comfortable life. Rose’s motivations remain open to interpretation in Pitt Pulford’s performance, is she truly in love with Alex and George as she claims and perhaps even convinces herself she is, or does she choose the most comfortable option with the better long-term prospects? There are faults in the story but Rose’s character isn’t one of them, she is complicated and varied, changes her mind, finds strength in herself, gets swept up and finds her own way all at once and Pitt Pulford gives her lots of really interesting and convincing dimensions. Vocally outstanding, her renditions of Seeing is Believing and Anything But Lonely are a particular delight.
John Bogyo’s Alex is now far more ambiguous as a result of the changes made to this production and altered perceptions of male sexual power in the world that has since developed around the show. Bogyo certainly captures Alex’s youthful verve, the adoration of Rose and the impression this formative love affair has on him. He ages up well later in the show and while the forbidden feeling for Jenny never entirely convinces, Bogyo navigates Alex’s flexible feelings well. Danielle de Niese makes fine work of the breezy Giulietta, perhaps the character most at ease with her choices and certainly most realistic about the reality of human passion.
Has Aspects of Love been sufficiently reconcieved for the twenty-first century. Maybe not entirely. For those new to it, it is still a very strange and overlong show that skitters about between different places and times, with lots of very messy love affairs that for a while everyone is terribly casual about, but none are drawn in enough depth to really feel beneath the surface. Love does appear to matter an awful lot to everyone but Aspects of Love tells rather than shows it as it skims across the surface of these interconnected lives. This production does find an ugliness in the deeply uncomfortable romantic dilemma at its heart that is still treated perhaps too casually and makes some of the motivations in the second half of the show quite perplexing.
But none of this will deter audiences from enjoying the soaring music with its occasional Tchaikovsky accents and hearing those four big songs in their original context perhaps for the first time. A clever staging that has potential for touring and the continuation of Michael Ball’s journey back through the shows that made him will be more than enough to keep them watching.
Aspects of Love is at the Lyric Theatre until 11 November with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog