On the 11th January 2019, I went to see Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London. Right off the bat, it’s important to note that this production is significant for altering the gender of multiple of the lead characters. Regardless of the reasonings behind the production team’s change in the gender of these characters, I think it makes it a significantly more engaging show and far more relatable in modern times.
Opening on Broadway in April 1970, Company is the brainchild of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book). It swept the Tony awards that year, winning six awards out of the fourteen it was nominated for, these being Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Lyrics, Best Direction and Best Scenic Design. Company revolves around Bobby, his three girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. The relationships of these married couples, as well as Bobby’s own, are explored in unrelated vignettes centred around Bobby’s 35th birthday party. The new version shifts Bobby to Bobbie (Rosalie Craig), who now has three boyfriends and one of the couples – Paul and Amy – has now been changed to Paul and Jamie and have probably the most moving section of the entire performance.
Changing the protagonist from male to female makes this story much more accessible for the 21st century. It’s nice to see a production team who do not treat the source material as the Bible and be flexible with it. Adapting the genders in this way while maintaining the heart of the musical is inspired. I would personally be entirely disinterested in investing my time and energy into the exploits of a man who is being pressured into marriage by his coupled friends while he dates three girls. It is much more compelling to me to see this played out as a woman feeling reticent to get married and feeling trapped and pressured by those around her, especially considering the different attitudes towards women and men getting married in modern times. To an extent, even the enthusiasm that Bobbie’s friends place towards their female friend getting married is a little outdated. It was also a delight having the ditsy girlfriend turned into a ditsy heterosexual man, as this is not exactly a character you see portrayed often. Having a homosexual relationship represented on stage, especially a relationship that was so realistically realised and experienced drama traditionally written for a heterosexual couple is refreshing. It doesn’t play into any stereotypes because it still uses the same source material, though it would have been nice to see the team play around a bit more with swapping Jamie and Paul into the traditionally female role. For the male-only/female-only moments, Paul remained with the men while Jamie took part with the girls. It would have been nice for them to take turns, as opposed to slightly playing into the concept that one of the men within the relationship fulfils a more feminine role.
Set & Light Design
For a musical that received a Tony for Best Scenic Design, it must be tricky to reconceptualise. Admittedly, I have no idea of the thought processes of Bunny Christie (designer) in concert with Marianne Elliott (director) as to their vision, nor how it differs from the original production. Interviews with Christie show that the intention is for the show to appear surreal and Alice in Wonderland-esque in a way, as we journey through Bobbie’s head during her reflections of the people closest to her.
The show is presented (as can be seen in the gallery that starts this review) through boxes of light. There are a few exceptions to this rule, though Bobbie’s apartment appears as a simple square that is surrounded by a strip of light around the edge. For the most part, these light strips remain white, though they do change colour effectively at parts of the production. I was quite impressed as to the transitions between vignettes. Boxes would appear from the back of the stage and come forwards in a sort of ghostly apparition, aided by lighting effects. Rooms that were not yet entered appeared to have a dim flickering lighting like in warehouses or corridor strips. Special mention should go to the nightclub scene in Act 2 in which the stage convincingly appears like a thriving club just through filtered light from the scening and the distant echoing of music throughout the dialogue. I was also especially fond of the facade of the street where we meet Jenny (Jennifer Saayeng) and David (Richard Henders). The fact that all of the houses were numbered 35 was a nice touch and another subtle nod to the fact that this is all happening within Bobbie’s head.
I was impressed by how effectively the lift was used to make rooms appear. This led to the seamless transition of Bobbie’s interactions with different couples as she left Sarah (Mel Giedroyc) and Harry’s (Gavin Spokes) apartment to appear on Peter (Ashley Campbell) and Susan’s (Daisy Maywood) balcony. It was also used for comedic purposes at the top of Not Getting Married Today. Speaking of Not Getting Married Today, the staging of that entire musical number is inspired. People kept on bursting out of random pieces of furniture, causing a simultaneous reaction of both hilarity and sheer perplexment. It was so well done and creative, I was chuckling until the emotional sucker punch hit me from below.
One thing that I would have improved in the set is the fact that each of the sets of Bobbie’s friends are blank and plain. Upon reflection this is probably to represent Bobbie’s lack of excitement in their lives, but it would have been nice to have a bit more visually to look at. Bobbie is the one splash of vibrant colour, and while I get this point stylistically, it can still lose its effect after a while.
The symbolism of the boxes was also well realised, though at the end I was left somewhat overwhelmed. Bobbie signals a new feeling of control within her own life by not only moving a section of the stage herself (as opposed to being victim to it) as well as finally succeeding in blowing out the candles. However, if you are going to get rid of the box, there needs to be something more visually exciting to look at. Rosalie Craig is indeed phenomenal, but Being Alive is a turning point for the character. It’s when she realises what she wants, but a blank stage while this happens is perhaps a step too far. Obviously this is Rosalie’s moment, but the stage just looked plain. It would have been nice to even have a cityscape of New York in the background. It didn’t need to be elaborate, but I was left feeling like there was more that could have been created in that moment.
On the topic of feeling underwhelmed, the music was another contentious point of this production. For a production that won a Tony for its score and lyrics, lots of the music was adapted to being more conversational. Personally, I loved this, as I felt it gave real heart and personality to the songs as sung by the different characters. Lots of the musical performances, especially by Craig, were understated. Marry Me a Little, which comes at the end of Act 1, was undersung. I quite enjoyed this, however, as – to me – this represented Bobbie’s character. There were moments where Craig’s voice merged perfectly with the instrumentation and she almost disappeared such is her dynamic range. While initially my reflex thought was that it might have been a sound issue, I quite enjoyed this upon reflection. It was almost as if Bobbie was sinking into the background of the scene (much like she had done for most of Act 1), even though she was the only one on stage. It is in direct contrast to her performance, therefore, in Being Alive where she is commanding the stage much more effectively.
Richard Fleeshman, George Blagden and Matthew Seadon-Young were stunning in the Andrews Sisters-inspired number You Could Drive a Person Crazy – a song that was sung by the three girlfriends in previous productions. I was also very fond of the opening to Act 2 which was visually overwhelming. The lighting was garish and the choreography was slick with the eleven main characters on stage. There was also a lovely moment with each of the couples having a clapping routine with each other, leaving Bobbie by herself and unable to do one successfully.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to not mention Patti LuPone. She was everything that you would expect her to be. She sold every moment that she was on stage and The Ladies Who Lunch was a highlight of the entire performance. Quite how she can perform so emotively, propped up on a bar stool with a drink in her hand is anybody’s guess, but I can only envy her talent. Not Getting Married Today, as mentioned earlier, was also a musical high point. Not only was it performed brilliantly, but it was as hilarious as you would expect and the applause was the longest of the evening.
- The entire Patti LuPone scene in Act 2. The lighting of the nightclub was sublime. Her interaction with Rosalie Craig was delightful and cutting. Not to mention the stellar vocal performance. Also, isn’t it crazy that the lyric in The Ladies Who Lunch,
- always existed? This is so appropriate for Rosalie Craig’s portrayal of this character, and it’s so strange to consider that such new meaning could be gained from a lyric written nearly 50 years ago.
- Not Getting Married Today, as I’ve mentioned quite a few times, was possibly my favourite of the entire evening. So funnily staged and performed, with genuine laugh out loud moments. Plus, anybody who can get their mouth around those lyrics deserves all the applause. Bravo, Jonathan Bailey for that one.
- Finally, Rosalie Craig. She is phenomenal. In the entire production, she only left stage about once. Her essential role for the entire show is to be in the background and periphery and yet she sells everything she does, even when the focus is upon the couples she is with. The vast majority of the show are the couples awkwardly arguing while she is present and your eye is immediately drawn to her on the stage. Her performance was nuanced and accomplished and I like how she didn’t fall into the trap of just belting whatever notes that she was given. There was such light and shade in what she delivered, it was captivating to listen to.
In summary, it was a highly enjoyable night at the theatre. There were risks taken, but this resulted in a much more contemporary and accessible production and there was not a single performer on the stage who did not excel.
Mark’s Muddled Mindset on the Matter
If I knew how to make a rating, I’d give it four and a half stars.Mark Goodwin, just now
(If you would like more information about this splendid production as well as ticket information, click here.)