A Little Night Music

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Menier Chocolate Factory

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By attracting Sir Trevor Nunn and several stars of the musical stage, in addition to the ever-popular Maureen Lipman, the Menier Chocolate Factory has really upped the stakes.

Over the years, their Christmas musical has proved a major draw and, recently, most have subsequently moved to the West End. Indeed, La Cage Aux Folles is not only running successfully at the Playhouse but has announced an extension with Graham Norton taking over from Douglas Hodge.

Hopes were therefore exceedingly high for this new version of a musical by perhaps today's favourite exponent of the genre, Stephen Sondheim.

At just over three hours, this is actually rather a lot of night music and possibly too much for some. While there is much to admire, the long evening played out in semi-darkness overstays its welcome.

Hugh Wheeler's book, based on an Ingmar Bergman film Smiles on a Summer Night, somehow comes over as something closer to a Feydeau farce without the pace that is essential to that form than a Swedish lament for lost opportunity.

The chain of love and lust in this sex comedy is connected by the witty and seductive Hannah Waddingham as Desirée. The towering but no longer youthful beauty is an actress in the most derogatory sense of that word.

In linear terms, her family is made up of a young daughter and Maureen Lipman playing a mother who spends her life dottily recalling, in Lady Bracknell tones, happier days long before as a courtesan.

Grace Link, taking the part of young Frederika on opening night, was close to stealing the show on a number of occasions. The child showed more common-sense and uncommon wisdom than the rest of the characters put together and the youthful actress has great comic timing and a pleasant singing voice.

Desirée has problems, as not one but two married men encircle her like doomed moths around a flame. You can hardly blame Alexander Hanson's Frederik, with Jessie Buckley's Anne a wife around 1/3 of his age, who has seemingly suffered a personality by-pass and an immature son.

Her other suitor, a soldier-count (Carl-Magnus played by Alistair Robins), has the morals of Iago but far less of a brain. Kelly Price as his Emelia is vindictive but cannot sustain the hatred through her disappointment.

To complete the circle, Frederik's sensitive son, Henrik is a would-be priest with a barely suppressed desire for his step-mum. The final pairings are inevitable but it takes time to get there.

Along the way, there is much humour, generally provided by some sharp Sondheim lyrics, and a handful of well-sung characteristic tunes, especially the recurring theme of A Weekend in the Country delivered by a well-chosen chorus.

Surprisingly, the show's most famous song, Send in the Clowns, showed Miss Waddingham seriously underpowered, possibly either the result of a vocal problem or directorial foible.

Make no mistake, there are some great passages and strong singing. Kaisa Hammarlund, a long-time Menier favourite, gets a chance to shine as saucy maid Petra and grabs it but with these credentials, the audience had a right to expect more fireworks than are on show.

Rachel Sheridan reviewed the transfer to the Garrick Theatre

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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