Sunday in the Park with George

Music by Stephen Sondheim with book by James Lapine
Wyndham's Theatre
(2006)

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Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985 for this work - at the time, one of only six musicals to have been awarded the honour. It tells the story of post-impressionist, George Seurat during the creation of the painting 'Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'.

Seurat wanted to design a method of painting which produced luminous effects by using small spots of different colours and allowing the viewer's eye to blend them. The result was pointillism. It became an obsession and along the way there were casualties - his relationship with his lover, Dot, and the daughter he never knew were all sacrificed in the name of his art. His early death at the age of 31 and the fact that he never sold a painting when he was alive all added up to a life of torture and disappointment.

But redemption arrives in Act Two under the guise of George's putative great grandson, also called George, an artist of sorts who has reached a crisis point in his career. George Junior defines himself as a sculptor and inventor. In reality, he creates images of light using a machine called a chromalume. George is bored with the phoney art world of which he is a part and wants to create something new that means something to him. He agrees to take his 98 year old grandmother, Marie (Seurat's abandoned daughter) back to the Island of La Grande Jatte, the scene of his masterpiece. But Marie never makes it. Alone in what is now an urban area, George is visited by Dot, who advises him to move on with his life and his art.

Sondheim, though mentored by the famous lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and trained in the mould of the 1950s Broadway musicals, has never been the sort of composer you can easily hum along to and Sunday in the Park with George is no exception. But the often discordant sounds and staccato notes (such as in 'Colour and Light') suit the mood of the piece. The music challenges, rather than cheers.

When one considers the theme: as to whether the artist is so caught up in his work that he forgets about life to the detriment of himself and those around him, it is interesting to note that Sondheim wrote this at a time when he was considering giving up theatre, following one of his own flops. Perhaps that is why it has such an intensely personal hue.

Sam Buntrocks's engaging production has made a successful transfer from the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory to the larger Wyndham's. The projection design provided by Timothy Bird seamlessly integrates with David Farley's set and gives a perfect insight into how Seurat worked. The tableau of the painting exactly mirrors the real thing and breathes new life into a nineteenth century work. Sondheim's imagination as to who these people are, and what sort of lives they lead outside the Sunday afternoon promenade is one of the great features of the show.

Daniel Evans (as both Georges) and Jenna Russell (as Dot and Marie) lead a strong cast and handle the songs with energy and pathos. Russell in particular (who took over from Anna Jane Casey) is wonderful as the hard-done-by mistress of the struggling Seurat. Out of his league in both class and education, Russell portrays a woman who nevertheless gamely embraces his art and complies with his demands to model for him, under uncomfortable circumstances, abandoning him only when she has no choice. She adds vital wit and humour to the show, carrying off the title song and 'Everybody loves Louis' with gusto and irony. As the insightful grandmother, Marie, she is no less effective, forming the bridge between the generations and being pivotal in the redemption of the younger George.

The show is a thought-provoking piece on artistic struggle and, while the music may not be to everyone's taste, the production makes full use of multi-media to create a memorable and imaginative event.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Menier Chocolate Factory prior to its West End transfer

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Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart