Sunday in the Park with George

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
One Academy Productions
C Chambers Street

One Academy Productions is the musical theatre company from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; they have a fine reputation at the Fringe for staging high-quality large-cast productions of the classics. Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George requires not only excellent musicality and strong voices, but also an exceptional precision from every member of the company. This cast rise to the challenge with aplomb.

The first act sees them enact an imagined version of the scenario behind George Seurat's famous Parisian pointilliste painting of 1884, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Granda Jatte". In the painting all looks serene, the visitors to the park arranged like blissful mannequins in foreground and background, sideways and front-facing in a perfectly ordered display. In "real life" - that is, the real life of the painting's inhabitants as imagined by the show - of course things are messier. Seurat's lover aches and sweats in her heavy dress as she poses for him - forbidden from moving for hours in the baking sunshine. A servant husband and wife try to explain to their daughter about low status: the park may be shared by everyone for the day but there are people she can speak to and people she cannot. A tetchy boatman savours his one day of leisure. A brash American couple stumble through speaking awful French.

And George captures them all, with an overarching sympathy that has as much time for the poorest people on the scene as for the richest. Is he too much an artist though? The Boatman bitterly suggests that George is romanticising him, and the scene in general - "you only draw what you want to see". Dot bemoans his obsessive nature, and fears that in the end he sees her as merely a prop to achieving his art.

Robert Dalton well captures George's excitable intelligence, and also his aching regret at the knowledge that he will, in the end, let Dot slip away from him, because his art matters too much to him and his love cannot be given to anything else. The repetitive phrases of the score echo George's constant returning to this one essential fact about himself.

Ruthie Luff is also superb as Dot: sassy, self-aware, hiding her bitterness at how George is treating her. And the whole company are brilliant at conveying the exact feel of that summer afternoon - the itchy sweatiness of the heat, the ripples of gossip, the boredom; especially when, at the start of Act 2, they are hilariously seen imprisoned, motionless, within the painting now hanging on a gallery wall a century later.

Act 2 is set in the 1980s: an artist descendant of Seurat, also called George, is revealing his latest hi-tech invention, a Tardis-like box rigged with complicated LED lights, which unfolds to contain a simulation of his ancestor's great painting.

The concerns of the artist - how to raise money, how to make people understand his endeavour - have changed very little in the past century, is Sondheim's point. I would have liked to have got a clearer idea of what George's artistic project is exactly - what is this box that constitutes his latest work, and why does he need to have an electrician with him whenever he is concocting a new work - though I understand that One Academy may not have had the budget to make the modern artwork as complicated and impressive as it might have been meant to be.

But overall this is a slick and highly professional production, elevated particularly by two emotional numbers, one at the end of each act: George finally letting his voice swell with emotion as he contemplates losing Dot; and Dot, meeting him later in life at the very end of the play, tearfully insisting that moving on is necessary and change must be committed to - perhaps talking mostly about the decision she made to leave George and marry another man - "The choice may have been mistaken", she argues, "but the choosing was not". Goes straight to the heart, this one.

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury

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