The 1980s gave us some of the most enduring modern musicals, with shows that more than three decades later still dominate the West End. Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and still resides at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Les Misérables is celebrating almost 35 continuous years with a nationwide tour and a controversial revamp while a new tour of Blood Brothers (1983) begins in 2019 which also had a notable 24-year run in West End. But there are some musicals that have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their more steadfast counterparts. But in the last year, first Chess and now Aspects of Love have earned revivals that offer a new generation a chance to see these productions for the first time.
Anyone born after 1980 may never have seen Aspects of Love and know it only for the song Love Changes Everything which made Michael Ball a star, so the Manchester Hope Mill’s garlanded revival which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks will be a first for many of us. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart is based on the 1955 novella by David Garnett which charts the incestuous romantic relationships of a group of bohemian friends over almost two decades. Himself a member of Bloomsbury group, it’s not difficult to see the refraction of Garnett’s own experience in the story that is darker than its quixotic title suggests.
The famous strains of Love Changes Everything open the show as former lovers meet once more at a funeral before the years roll back to the beginning of this sorry tale. The song initially seems to signal to the audience that love is a hopefully, positive force, one that will define your life for the better. Heard repeatedly out of context on LP as a child, the lyrics and emotional swell of the music have always implied a happy passion, one in which the singer welcomes the bittersweet thrill of it all. How different the unfolding tale proves to be, and heard now in context it seems Michael Ball was singing about something else altogether.
Jonathan O’Boyle’s revival’s gives you the first clue as you take your seat, what look like foxglove stems hang upside down from the ceiling, lilac and beautiful, they are romantically struck into semi-shadow by the theatre lights. But designer Jason Denvir is playing with us; beautiful on the outside but deadly within, foxgloves are the source of digitalis a dangerous and near traceless poison beloved of Agatha Christie novels and even used against James Bond in the 2005 film of Casino Royale. Love, the company want us to know is a poisonous contraction of the heart.
While providing enough open space to fit 46 songs and indicate the rapid passing of the years, the rest of the set stresses the dreamlike quality of the characters’ lives, sunset colours stream through the shuttered doors at the rear of the stage as Denvir recreates the theatres of post-war Montpellier, the cafes of Paris and George’s restful countryside villa. It has a 50’s technicolor glamour that references the golden age of Hollywood and the artistic leanings of this little group – the actress, the sculptor, the benefactor and the star-struck boy.
Despite all of this, it’s easy to see why Aspects of Love rather fell by the wayside, sandwiched between Lloyd’s Webber’s gold-plated hit The Phantom of the Opera (another novel adaptation) and Sunset Boulevard based on the 1950 film which earned its own revival two years ago with Glenn Close at The Coliseum. The fragmented nature of Aspects of Love is both its saviour and its downfall; relatively short scenes flow very quickly offering only snatches of time before years pass and characters have entirely changed location, status and relationship making it much harder to understand or sympathise with the emotions of this bed-hopping set. Repeatedly characters profess love for one another but that never keeps them from other lovers and the story rarley pauses long enough to properly engage with the psychology of these people, to really explore the multiple versions and depths of love that the show toys with.
This flitting from scene to scene also makes the show feel longer than it really is, with no clear structure to guide the viewer through to the unexpectedly open conclusion. Unlike Phantom or Sunset Boulevard there is a bagginess to the show which, with no obvious driver or drama beyond the various emotional entanglements, lacks shape. Yet, as Denvir so clearly shows in the staging, there is colour in every moment of the show, and particularly so in this Hope Mill production. Over time you start to feel there is a thesis about the changing nature of passion, the fallibility of the heart and frailty of the individual to resist another opportunity to feel loved, a craving for the kind of validation it brings whatever the cost.
And then there is the music. While Black and Hart’s lyrics never quite match the highs of Lloyd Webber’s emotive, swelling score, and the same refrains from the opening number and others are recycled too many times to be entirely satisfactory, nonetheless there is something engaging, charming and, at times, even moving in the way the show builds as a whole. If you’ve watched enough Royal Variety Performances or theatre concerts you may even recognise more songs than you thought ,with numbers including wistful duet Seeing is Believing, the swaying tones of The First Man You Remember and the powerful ache of Anything But Lonely, all of which are as good as anything Lloyd Webber ever wrote, but a shame to hear them with only a piano here.
O’Boyle’s production staged in the ¾ round at the Southwark Playhouse makes a reasonable case for the return of Aspects of Love to the Lloyd Webber canon. There is a playful quality to the first act in which love affairs begin and hearts are carelessly broken with little thought for the consequences. There is no sense of foreboding, no future waiting to claim them, just endless summers, optimism and a couple of love triangles that reek of bohemian freedom, enhanced by some well-staged ensemble numbers.
Aspects of Love is full of slightly troubling age-gap relationships, starting with the connection between the ardent 17-year old Alex and the older Rose who appropriately appears in The Master Builder when they first meet. Sweet and idealistic, it takes place in secluded picnic spots away from reality, but O’Boyle’s production is clear that the characters are on parallel tracks (a trait to be repeated in the love stories to follow), being nothing more than a harmless fling for Rose, while a defining passion for Alex that he is expected to grow out of – everyone needs to get their heart broken at least once. The entrance of the more mature Uncle George offers Rose stability and an open relationship, welcoming his other younger lover Giulietta into the home.
Act II marks a notable shift in tone and, 12-years on, Rose now entertains her own adoring fans in Paris, while married to George who cares for their daughter Jenny at the Pau villa. Giulietta’s unexplained absence after years of happiness is portentous, writing to say she cannot be with them, just as Alex re-enters the picture, forming a connection to the 14-year old Jenny that becomes incredibly problematic both for the strange ménage and for the audience. With the passing of the years, it’s hard to know how this particularly unsavoury aspect was originally perceived by audiences, but the characters take it surprisingly in their stride, whether they just fail to notice or fail to act is never entirely clear but the result is too underplayed for the severity of the subject matter and the implied collusion of her parents leaves a slightly bitter taste.
As Alex, Felix Mosse’s puppy love for a rising actress gives way to jealousy, rage and resentment as he imagines her drifting away before she eventually does. Having spent 30-years hearing Michael Ball’s verdant take on the opening number Mosse’s rendition is rather clipped and quiet by comparison, offering a quieter, guarded performance that gives little away throughout the show. In fairness, there’s not much in the character of Alex for Mosse to get his teeth into so while the experience and then memory of his grand passion for Rose propel the story, Mosse navigates the fluctuations between outrage and mild acceptance as well as he can. Yet, it is not until the far more inappropriate attraction to Jenny, who is more than half his age, that he is able to amplify his inner turmoil most effectively.
It is Kelly Price’s Rose who comes most sharply into view through this production, a woman who craves love in all its forms while searching for a permanency she can return to when her temporary amours are over. Price’s semi-operatic voice fits the range of Lloyd Webber’s music extremely well giving life to songs as well as reflecting the passing years in Rose’s growing comfort and complacency. Price is particularly affecting in the final moments of the show, tearing at the heart with the sorrowful and haunting Anything But Lonely in which her free-spirited exuberance reveals an essential vulnerability that makes sense of her choices, creating genuine empathy for a woman who has had to make her own way in the world by whatever means she can.
The leads are supported by notable performances from Madalena Alberto as artist Giulietta who makes you wish the character had a much bigger role, Jerome Pradon who brings texture and feeling as lascivious Uncle George, as well as Eleanor Walsh as the precocious Jenny who certainly brings an uncomfortable and earnest sexuality to the part even if she doesn’t always suggest quite how young Jenny really is.
This production of Aspects of Love certainly gives rise to a number of conflicting feelings and, troubling as the story now is, the music and energy of it have lasted remarkably well, and there are quite deliberate references to La Boehme, The Master Builder and Chekhov that draw on themes about the liberation of nature, city life and a romantic connection to the past that underlie much of the action. You will remember this as a moment of happiness Alex is frequently told, the convolutions and pain of his love affairs reduced by time and memory. The show itself may perhaps benefit from a modern reworking to iron out the more distasteful elements, but Aspects of Love should be fondly remembered.