Side by Side by Sondheim

Devised by Ned Sherrin with the music of Stephen Sondheim
Andrew Lynford Productions and the Union Theatre
Union Theatre, Southwark

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Following his parents' divorce, Stephen Sondheim became a school-friend of the son of Oscar Hammerstein, the well-known lyricist. Hammerstein Senior took the young Sondheim under his wing and became his professional and personal hero. Sondheim later admitted that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, he'd have pursued a career in geology.

Luckily for the world of musical theatre, Oscar Hammerstein's interest in geology is not recorded, so the world was gifted instead with great songs and lyrics as diverse as "Send in the Clowns", "Comedy Tonight" and "Broadway Baby".

The Union Theatre is an intimate space converted by Sasha Regan in 1998 from an old paper warehouse into a fringe venue and it is just right for a revue like this. The occasional noise of a passing train fazed neither the cast nor the audience and the narrator, played by Chris Gee, even incorporated it into script, as one rumbled along just in time for the song "Another Hundred People (got off a train)".

The revue (first performed in 1976) is a well-structured foray into the themes of Sondheim's work, with the witty links that one would expect from the pen of Ned Sherrin and the stamp of Sondheim himself who worked with the cast on that first production. Adequate weight is given to the obvious show-stealers such as "I'm still here" from Follies and the duet from West Side Story "A Boy like That". But there were lesser known ones too such as the bawdy "Can That Boy Foxtrot" that was dropped from the original Follies and rediscovered here.

On the whole, the company (Gavin James, Morgan James, Denise Silvery, Natalie Searles and Alison Egan) had good voices and played with enthusiasm. Silvery gave a strong rendition of "I'm still Here" and Gavin James gave a moving version of "Anyone can Whistle", from the musical of the same name. Natalie Searles' performance of the hilarious "The Boy From " showed shades of Ali G, and really engaged the audience. On a couple of occasions however, the soloists had to fight against the piano as it was in danger of drowning them. Whether this has to do with the acoustics, or whether the playing was too loud, or the singing too soft, I'm not sure, but it did affect a couple of numbers.

Sondheim's breadth of work gave the cast lots of opportunity to show versatility: from humorous duets such as "Barcelona" and "The Little Things You Do Together", tortured solos such as "Losing My Mind" and the acerbic "Could I Leave You" (feistily performed by Chris Gee), as well as full-company belters such as "Comedy Tonight" and "Officer Krupke". At times Andrew Lynford's direction felt a little static for the material. For example, Alison Egan gave two very different performances on the reflective ballad "Send in the Clowns", and the innuendo-laden "I never do anything Twice". However, the similar staging somewhat detracted from it.

Because the show was put together in the mid-seventies, it doesn't include Sondheim's later work, such as Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. However, it's a good introduction to Sondheim's repertoire for those who don't know it and a nostalgic evening for those who do.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart

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