Erich Segal, book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, music and additional lyrics by Howard Goodall
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
This musical, given its first UK revival at the Octagon since its Chichester and West End debut four years ago, is exactly what it says on the poster, a love story, but, as it begins with the funeral of one of the protagonists, you are under no illusions about there being a happy ending.
Following this tearful prologue, the story flashes back to where Jenny and Oliver meet. She is an outspoken music student and brilliant pianist from a working class Italian background, always ready with a smart put-down; he is an all-American jock, about to train as a lawyer and destined to inherit a large family fortune.
We all know how these things work: at first they clash and appear not to get on, but they grow closer until they are deeply in love. However the storytelling never appears formulaic due to a smart book and lyrics by Stephen Clark without the soft-focussed sentimentality of the 1970 film.
Oliver has a huge chip on his shoulder and behaves, in Jenny's eyes, deplorably towards his father, Oliver Barrett III, who in turn believes that his son is only marrying a girl from a poor background to rebel against him—and he may be partially correct.
Jenny, on the other hand, is extremely close to her widowed father Phil, but he complains that Oliver is expecting Jenny to give up her musical ambitions for him. These parental clashes are played out in a pair of excruciatingly embarrassing dinner scenes.
Most of the play is a well-observed trip through a fledgling romance with all of its pleasures and pains, heightened by Howard Goodall's modern melodic music. It's funny, frustrating and uplifting—but, even though we know it is coming, the inevitable ending hits like a thunderbolt.
Director Elizabeth Newman recently directed a double bill of Tom Kempinski two-handers (Duet for One and Separation). This is, largely, another two-hander, and she has directed it with the same intensity and attention to detail, helped of course by another pair of extremely good actors.
Lauren Samuels and Daniel Boys are both wonderful in the roles of Jenny and Oliver, but Boys in particular gives a performance of great subtlety and variety. The scene in which he is told of Jenny's illness is very difficult to perform without lapsing into cliché, but he plays every moment with heartbreaking truthfulness.
There are lovely performances as well from Matthew Woodyatt as Phil and Nicholas Blane as Oliver Barrett III, plus Barbara Drennan plays Oliver's upper class mother, observing her husband and son's disputes quietly, never quite interfering.
The remainder of the cast fill in smaller parts but also serve as the on-stage orchestra, which sounds excellent under Tarek Merchant's musical direction, although they are sometimes drowned out by over-amplified vocals. It's a shame they didn't have the courage to do away with microphones and let us hear some natural voices with the acoustic instruments in a theatre the size of the Octagon.
Ciaran Bagnall's design has the swirls and polished wood of a string instrument but also serves nicely as choir stalls in a concert hall, bleachers in a hockey field or an academic library, with some ingenious pieces of set hidden behind sliding panels. The steep steps are a little over-used where stillness and a single level may have been more effective—plus I feared for Samuels's safety in those wedding high heels.
The Octagon has produced a great revival of a show that is, as a chamber piece, perfectly suited to the theatre's size and shape. It is intense, perfectly paced and will run you through a wide range of emotions but, despite the tragic conclusion, has a very positive message about love.
It's definitely worth a look. But don't forget your tissues, just in case.