Boxing way above their weight yet again, south London’s Menier Chocolate Factory nab themselves another West End transfer with Maria Friedman’s definitive take on George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s previously troubled, now sparkling, tale of friendships forged and lost and the true meaning of success.
In what is an absolute steal, front row stalls seats are currently only £10, released on-line around 10.30am on the day of performance and from whence this report is filed.
Having caught this production twice in its original SE1 home and awarding it a resounding 5 stars (original review here), I was intrigued to see how it would work outside of the quirky cosy confines of the Chocolate Factory.
With all of the principals (Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley, Josefina Gabrielle, Glyn Kerslake and Clare Foster – just typing that made me catch my breath) and most of the supporting cast intact and Soutra Gilmour’s sleek minimal set subtly expanded vertically and horizontally to fit the Pinter’s larger stage, the omens are good as the brass heavy band strike up Sondheim’s sassy overture.
The transition from fringe to West End is seamless, I could gush forever, but I'll try to keep a modicum of restraint.
The performances are if anything more nuanced, Josefina Gabrielle in particular relishes Gussie Carnegie’s relentless social climbing, her fake bonhomie barely disguising her unbridled ambition. Damian Humbley effortlessly conveys Charley’s bottomless well of sadness as he gradually loses his best friend and Jenna Russell is heartbreaking as Mary, scarcely able to hide the tears behind the smiles of a woman in a lifelong unrequited love affair.
Mark Umber’s Frank drives the story and is young, good-looking and eventually rich, but is an absolute shit who measures success in dollars, ruthlessly discarding family and friends. This has always been perceived as a major flaw in engaging an audience. Mrs Front Row Dress was otherwise engaged herself this evening, so my mate Suzy joined me in the cheap seats. Having no prior knowledge of the show or its difficult history, Suzy looked at me as if I was mad when I bought up the problem of Frank being so unlikeable and said simply “but we all love a bad boy”.
This is exactly what we needed in the West End - George Furth’s sharp witty book addresses real issues that we all face to varying degrees in a thought provoking entertaining manner and is coupled with one of Sondheim’s best scores and a simply breathtaking cast.
So there you have it, the perfect show. Maybe it never was the disaster it was made out to be. Maybe Sondheim was so far ahead of his time that it has taken the rest of us thirty years to catch up. Maybe Maria Friedman has found her true milieu. Somewhere along the line the word genius needs to be applied.
If your spirits ever need improving, you can drop in any night for £10.