Monday 26 January 2009

A Little Night Music

The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre is in many ways a strange place to stage a musical. It is quite a small theatre with no space for a large band, and rather dry acoustics. But stage musicals they do. Their previous one, amazingly, was La Cage aux Folles, goodness knows how they managed to fit that in to the theatre. Currently they are performing Sondheim's A Little Night Music. A musical with a significant score and a large cast (15 major singing roles). They used a band of just 7, who are perched up high away from the stage. All the singers are miked and what you hear is mixed and broadcast over speakers, Gareth Owen is credited with the sound design.

We saw the show on Saturday. When it opened, at first it sounded as if the singers were miming to a recording, though I gradually became accustomed to the sound quality. It was very loud, too loud at times for the small theatre and you never felt that you were hearing any of the voices acoustically, only electronically. This was a shame as most of the actors are accomplished singers with track records in previous musicals, so I felt that the show could have been made to work with no amplification at all.

Trevor Nunn's production was lovely to look at, quite inventive with the stage designs of David Farley, who also designed the traditional costumes. As usual with this show, it got off to a bit of a slow start. But then the sheer delight of Sondheim's songs catches you. Some, of course, are regularly done as solo items but all the songs work far better, and are far funnier and apposite when heard in context. It is also amazing how he manages to use them to advance the plot.

One of the interesting things about this musical is the way Sondheim aims for a score with lots of music but without burdening the leads. He uses a group of singers who, though named, take no explicit part in the plot; instead they sing commentaries on the action. Nunn used the 5 actors as supernumeraries in various scenes, which worked very well.

Gabriel Vick made a personable and believable Henrik. Nunn has cast the whole show with a careful thought to the ages so that the young look suitably young. Vick has an attractive voice but, as usual, his technique was rather taxed by the rather operatic requirements of his solos. Not for nothing did the TER recording us a real opera singer (Bonaventure Bottone) in this role. Anne was similarly very young. She was played by Jessie Buckley who evidently came second in the recent TV show looking for an actress to play Nancy in Oliver. She made Anne completely captivating and believable. My only complaint is that her opening number, Soon required more of a trained voice than she has, she sang it with a very noticeable break and her upper register sounded a little too unsupported.

Alexander Hanson made Fredrik very much the charming and sexy older man, and he managed his way around the tongue-twisting passages of his musical contributions in an admirable fashion. Alistair Robins and Kelly Price were the Count and Countess, suitably attractive looking and both attentive to musical values as well.

Hannah Waddingham was the main recipient of Nunn's thoughts about the ages of the characters, she is noticeably younger than other actresses in the role. Waddingham's Desiree is only just approaching 40 and this works very well. Waddingham's way with the show's best known number, Send in the Clowns made it the opposite of a belting torch song, and made you wish Sondheim had given Desiree more to sing. Her mother was superbly played by Maureen Lipmann, with her usual fine sense of comic timing. And her delivery of Liaisons was masterly, lovely to hear the song properly sung for once, as opposed to being wobbled through (Lila Kedrova) or half spoken (Hermione Gingold).

Kaisa Hammarlund as Petra delivered The Miller's Son as the outstanding item it is, and Jeremy Finch's Frid got to sing Silly People which was cut just before the first run.

I hope that this show might transfer to a bigger theatre, it certainly deserves it.

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