Sunday in the Park with George

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2005)

Before getting on to the play, it is wonderful to be able to congratulate David Babani and Danielle Tarento on two recent awards for the Menier Chocolate Factory. Both the Evening Standard with its Outstanding Newcomer and the Empty Space have recognised that this unusual venue is now one of the coolest theatres in town.

Their latest production is a revival of Stephen Sondheim's homage to two Georges, the Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his imagined great grandson, a real chip off the old, heavily-bearded block.

Designer David Farley provides colourful costumes and a very wide, shallow set which is enlivened by a couple of conveyors. His work is enhanced by the superb efforts of Timothy Bird and his team of six computer designers. They provide colourful graphics that wonderfully recreate the finest paintings of this immortal artist.

With great humour and attention to detail, the actors and images blend together, so that the two most famous paintings, Bathers at Asnières and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte (now in the National Gallery and Chicago respectively) reappear before our very eyes.

Rather than stopping there, the whizzy graphics also allow Daniel Evans, playing the pointilliste who did not manage to sell a single picture during his lifetime, to "paint" his bored model Dot, not to mention a number of frolicking puppies.

The first half of the play features the artist at work, both in the park and the studio, as he creates his masterpieces. It also gives a snapshot of Parisian life in the middle of the 19th century with soldiers and their girls, the artist's mother and her nurse and one or two other disdainful artists brought to life.

Most colourful of all is the foul-mouthed, judgmental boatman played by Scot Alasdair Harvey. This latter-day Charon looks suitably sinister with a piratical eye-patch and false leg. But for the heroic efforts of actress Kaisa Hammarlund he might characteristically have burnt the house down on the opening night, courtesy of the smouldering tobacco that should have remained in his clay pipe.

Seurat was a complete obsessive and did not even notice the love that Dot felt for him. Eventually, having been driven to distraction, she disappeared to America with the universally-loved Louis the Baker (Ian McLarnon).

However, just before this, she had given birth to the artist's child, Marie, and the surprise is not that he hardly noticed his baby but that he found the time to father her at all.

After the interval, the action moves forward four generations to focus on a second George, at 32, one year older than the original at his untimely death.

This George is an artist who prefers lasers to oils but shares many of his ancestor's traits. In particular he has an ability to ignore both an attractive ex-wife and even his charming 98 year-old grandmother Marie, last seen in her mother's arms immortalised in the park and then heading for the United States.

This section allows Sondheim to deliver an entertaining art lesson, while at the same time demonstrating the impact that Georges Seurat still has today. Just look in London's (or Paris's) major art galleries.

The two ages are eventually brought together as a depressed younger George dreams his way into the life of his great grandmother for a meaningful chat about art and life.

This show looks great, thanks to the designers, traditional and multimedia, and features solid performances throughout, never more so than by Daniel Evans, a consummate actor with a good singing voice, and Anna Jane Casey who comes to the fore in a song in which her character persuades herself that she really loves Louis.

The music in this triple award-winning hit is not always memorable but there are some real show-stoppers including the anthemic "Sunday; Move On" a lovely duet between the two stars; and the very witty "Day Out" in which Daniel Evans has great fun entertaining (and even imitating) a couple of the artist's canine subjects.

There is little doubt that the Menier has yet another success on its hands. This adventurous theatre in Southwark is well worth a visit. It is worth investing in the combined ticket that provides a tasty bistro-style pre-theatre dinner for a price very little higher than that of the ticket.

Philip Fisher