Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
Robert – Lincoln Stone
Sarah – Samantha Seager
Harry – Tom Hyatt
Susan – Jenny Layton
Peter – Steven Craven
Jenny – Jane Quinn
David – Nigel Pilkington
Amy – Marisa Leigh Boynton
Paul – Paul Callen
Joanne – Lucy Williamson
Larry – Gido Schimanski
Marta – Samantha Giffard
Kathy – Katherine Eames
April – Lucy Evans
Michael England – Musical Direction & Piano
Tom Macleod – Alto Saxophone & Clarinet
Jaro Barnik – Trumpet
Chloe Treacher – Double bass
Nick James – Drums
Michael Stassen – Direction & Staging
Michael England – Musical Direction & Orchestrations
Neil Lamont – Set Designs
Steve Miller – Lighting Designs
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 23 May, 2009
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1
The origins of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” (sub-titled ‘a musical comedy’) lie in eleven short plays that George Furth wrote for the actress Kim Stanley in which she would have played the leading lady in each play. Eventually this idea was deemed unfeasible – how could one actress cope with so many changes of costume, wigs and make-up in one evening? However, when Harold Prince read the plays he thought they would make a good musical and one that would fit into an idea of his to do a show about marriage. Sondheim then became interested and the idea developed into a show with one central, unmarried character and his relationship with various married couples living in New York. The leading character, Robert, has reached the age of 35 and is at the crossroads in his emotional life – he’s still not married. His friends – “those good and crazy people, his married friends” – want to know why he isn’t married yet. He’s not gay, he just hasn’t found the right partner or the strength to commit to a permanent relationship. The show goes some way to helping him make up his mind as it looks at the different kinds of relationships his friends enjoy or destroy.
Only one-and-a-half of George Furth’s eleven scripts survived into the finished musical of “Company”. The original title for the show was “Threes”, because most of the scenes deal with one couple plus Robert. For instance, Harry and Sarah just about tolerate each other. He’s supposed to be on the wagon, she’s allegedly on a diet, but he has sly drinks and she sneaks off with cakes. They pretend to have a playful wrestling match but the violence could be all too real. Joanne is much married and currently with Larry but is obviously not a happy bunny. Peter and Susan seem to be happy and flirtatious with one another but they are about to get a divorce, and Robert is the first one to know. David and Jenny are would-be cool customers, smoking pot and although they get stoned, Jenny prefers not to, but she does it just to please her husband.
When the men friends decide to find Robert a girl, it transpires he has three on the go already, an air-hostess called April, beautiful but dumb; Kathy whom he finds he could have married as she once wanted to marry him, but is now leaving New York to return to Cape Cod; and Marta, a really modern girl but one who scares the pants off Robert who backs away from her. Then we have Paul and Amy who have lived and loved together for years but who are only just getting around to marriage. However, on her wedding day Amy cannot bear the thought of getting hitched and tries to bow out. Back at his birthday party Robert yearns for someone to just “marry me a little”.
In the second act there are some revelations and resolutions. Robert wonders what it would be like living with a couple, and his friends in turn wonder what life would be like without him. As a single man he’s quite useful: he can baby-sit or take the kids to the zoo or eat up yesterday’s stew. Robert then beds April and, to his chagrin, she decides to stay instead of flying off to Barcelona. Back with Peter and Susan, divorced but still living together, Robert is propositioned by Peter who asks him if he’s ever been with a man. Clearly worried about his friends, a couple echoing those in Sondheim’s previous musical “Do I hear a waltz?”: “Sometimes she smokes in bed / Sometimes he’s homosexual”, Robert tries to forget Peter ever mentioned it.
Joanne and Larry take Robert to a night-club where they get drunk and where Joanne tries to seduce Robert. Obviously unimpressed by what he has seen in his friends’ lives and the way they conduct their marriages, Robert goes back to his party but, despite all he’s heard, he is still longing to have someone to make him alive.
Although the short plays between each song are little more than sketches, they are enough to set the scene upon which each song can then comment. From the opening title-number (“Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company”) through to the finale (‘Side by side by side’) there are some fifteen numbers that show Sondheim both musically and lyrically at his best. ‘The little things you do together’ is a catalogue of what makes marriage a joy (“It’s the concerts you enjoy together, neighbours you annoy together, children you destroy together”) sung by the ever-ironic Joanne who also has ‘The ladies who lunch’, a hatchet-job on ageing middle-class matrons (“Another long exhausting day, another thousand dollars, / A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler’s / I’ll drink to that!”). Then there’s ‘Sorry-grateful’, in which a chorus of husbands admit why married life is so good or so bad. ‘You could drive a person crazy’ has Robert’s three girlfriends telling it like it is and why Robert is such a hopeless case. ‘Another hundred people’ sees Marta the independent spirit summing up the cold, impersonal way of life in metropolitan New York – “It’s a city of strangers, some come to work and some to play, / A city of strangers, some come to stare and some to stay”. The hilarious ‘Getting married today’ is Amy’s plea for the congregation to stay away because she knows she’s made a mistake (“Thank you all for the gifts and the flowers, / Thank you all, now it’s back to the showers, / Thank you all but I’m not getting married today.”).
The songs range from pertly apt comments on the problems of marriage and city life, through the good things and the bad about a committed relationship, to the search for the perfect partner. There were several different endings to the show but the one chosen was mildly positive in Robert’s ‘Being alive’ which would send the audience home with a feel-good experience which Sondheim, however, considered a cop-out. He thought that Robert was avoiding commitment because of his friends’ experiences, and that there is an alternative because life has many other distractions such as possessions, drink, drugs and available sex that could easily replace a permanent relationship. “Company” is a musical-comedy and Sondheim wanted his audience in tears of laughter during the show but, when they got home, to have a sleepless night. Anyway, staging musicals is a team effort, “Company” is a company show with, nominally, no stars, and so compromises are made.
If it didn’t have stars originally, it certainly had names. Anthony Perkins was to have been Robert but left to direct a play. His replacement, Dean Jones, played Robert for the opening performances and on the original-cast recording, but left as he was going through his own traumatic divorce. Larry Kert (Tony in the first “West Side Story”) took over and was very successful. Elaine Stritch played Joanne and when the show came to London in 1972 she stayed on and had another career here. Donna McKechnie did the big dance number that was supposed to represent love in all its orgasmic glory. Broadway, television and film star Barbara Barrie played Sarah. But it was still a company show.
The production at the Union Theatre was a sell-out success at the Edinburgh Festival and it’s easy to see why. Although it has been staged several times since 1970 there have not been that many opportunities to see “Company”, a music-theatre piece that changed the Broadway musical so radically. Sondheim and his fellow creators broke the rules by turning it into an almost Brechtian study with characters stepping out of the show to comment in song on the action. Sondheim is no fan of Brecht but “Company” is the acceptable face of the Brechtian alienation effect. Lincoln Stone provides a strong central performance as Robert, although it’s difficult to know which side he should be on, pro- or anti-marriage, but then that’s Robert’s problem. Tom Hyatt and Samantha Seager as Harry and Sarah make a likeable if annoying couple, hiding their true feelings behind food and booze. Steven Craven as the ‘let’s swing both ways’ Peter is suitably enigmatic while Susan (Jenny Layton), his Southern-belle wife, is just, well, a bit dumb.
Good work, too, from Nigel Pilkington as David and Jane Quinn as Jenny and Paul Callen as Paul and Marisa Leigh Boynton as Amy, who is not getting married today and who has the most hilarious and fastest number in the show; a showstopper. Gido Schimanski as Larry and Lucy Williamson as Joanne are a sad pair, although Lucy as one of ‘The ladies who lunch’ is as wired as you could possibly imagine in another show-stopper. The three girlfriends are well differentiated in the performances of Samantha Giffard as Marta, Katherine Evans as Kathy and Lucy Evans as April, the air-hostess with only a single gesture in her flying manual. The members of the cast are also great movers and director Michael Strassen keeps them going at a rate of knots. Michael England’s band gives the slick, iciness of the music an edge, which also complements the irony of the lyrics. A great show, a smashing production and a welcome chance to revisit a twentieth-century masterwork.
- Company is at Union Theatre, Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 13 June 2009
- Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3
- Tickets 020 7261 9876
- Union Theatre