Like many of the people around me at the Southwark Playhouse production of Sondheim's COMPANY, I have seen the show many times (there was a lot of comparing of productions going on during the interval). I saw the original production early on in its run and was blown away by its originality. Later I saw the touring production and admired the Donmar Warehouse revival fifteen years ago. I have also suffered through countless amateur productions -- COMPANY is easy to do badly. COMPANY has a great score, but a problematic script. George Furth and Stephen Sondheim, with original producer-director Harold Prince, took a group of short one-act plays on marriage and tied them together with a central character, Robert, a thirty-five year old bachelor who is ambivalent about commitment but enjoys the company of his married friends. The characters are more types than three-dimensional figures which is fine because each married couple only has ten to fifteen minutes of stage time. Bobby is on throughout but is more a detached observer than a protagonist and detached observers aren't dramatically very interesting Dean Jones was bland in the original cast (he only lasted three months) which threw all the focus onto his married friends and girlfriends, like being straight man to a dozen comics. In the 1995 Donmar revival, Sam Mendes found a way to make the show more Robert's by making it clear that he is remembering all the events of the show while deciding whether to attend the surprise 35th birthday party they have planned for him. Adrian Lester gave Robert a personality and some motivation. The Donmar production also proved that, like many Sondheim shows, COMPANY works best as a chamber musical in a small theatre. The current production goes even further in solving the problems of the book. Under Joe Fredericks' direction, Rupert Young's Robert is a troubled man with bad dreams. Facing thirty-five is clearly a crisis for him. Young brings more charisma and energy to Robert than any performer I have seen. He's a very physical actor and his big moments really fill the theatre. Robert's eleven o'clock number, "Being Alive" was not just a big song belted, but a real cry for help, sung beautifully but also acted. I only knew Young from supporting roles on stage and on television. This production proved he has real star quality. One understood why everyone loved Robert. The show was effectively updated to the present (a couple of anachronisms in the lyrics stood out, particularly lines about message services in an age of cell phones) and Robert was like many young men now (more than in 1970) who don't think about settling down until they're near forty. Every number in this production seemed part of Robert's mindset rather than a clever commentary on marriage.
For the most part, the entire cast was excellent as singers and as actors. The married couples and three girlfriends are both supporting cast and chorus in this show. This was certainly the best sung COMPANY I have experienced. The staging and choreography were effective. Since the audience sat on three sides of a stage, simple platforms and a few pieces of rolling furniture were the only set pieces, but with good lighting, that was all we needed. The costumes, unfortunately, looked messy and as if they hadn't been cleaned or pressed since opening night. This was sub thrift shop. The cast and production deserved more. A good six piece band was piped in from another room and the amplification was more tasteful than usual.
Until recently, the Menier Chocolate Factory has had the monopoly on intimate revivals of hit musicals. Actually the co-producer and casting director of many of those productions served in those capacities for this COMPANY. Actually the Southwark Playhouse is a nicer venue than the Menier. It is larger, less claustrophobic and has a large, comfortably furnished bar and large, clean bathrooms. It is certainly a better spot than the smaller Union Theatre which has aso been producing strong musical revivals. I hope this is the beginning of a new phase of the Southwark's work.
I went to this production thinking, "Do I really need to see another COMPANY?" At the end, I wondered whether I could get a ticket to see this production again.
COMPANY. Southwark Playhouse. February 13, 2011.