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Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by George Furth
Gielgud Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Booking through to March 30, 2019: Buy tickets
When Company opened on Broadway in 1970 it was a watershed show which pointed the way for everybody else. Musically, stylistically and thematically it broke new ground, even its design was radical. Its dry, sophisticated, urban take on the sexual politics of that era made it something unique – a musical for adults.
But that was nearly 50 years ago. Now the great Marianne Elliott (Tony winner for War Horse and The Curious Incident...) has re-gendered it and the result is simply phenomenal.
Instead of the aimless commitment-phobic Bobby, who, to be honest, would not be that sympathetic a character today, we get Bobbie, a confident woman who, on her 35th birthday, is taking stock on her love life and batting fusillades of mostly unwanted advice from her, mostly, married friends. In a career defining central performance Rosalie Craig makes this Bobbie the heroine of her own story.
It wouldn't have gelled 50 years ago when women had less agency over their lives but today that switch gives the piece more substance. For a woman of 35 'settling down' is a bigger deal, particularly if children are hoped for. It now therefore speaks far more meaningfully to a whole new generation.
The change has repercussions beyond mere pronouns but they all work. It is now three male lovers: Richard Fleeshman, George Blagden and Matthew Seadon-Young who sing the Andrews Sisters pastiche song 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy' and they do it as if it was written for them. Fleeshman too has the sexual charisma to make Bobbie's dalliance with this sweet but dim air steward totally plausible. Elliott has great fun with the marrieds' pity for the singletons. As Bobbie and Jamie frolic under the duvet, the friends pour in mournfully singing "Poor Baby all alone...".
The show famously doesn't have a plot but rather a set of scenes threaded together with musical numbers which themselves function in a myriad of ways. Despite no formal storyline, each of the vignettes featuring her 'crazy married friends' is rich enough to be playlets in themselves, such is the brilliant concision of Furth's book. It all takes place inside Bobbie's head. She's got wind of the planned surprise party and is thinking of ducking out.
Bobbie is the hub but the piece demands a really strong ensemble company and there isn't weak link here. Liam Steel then manages to choreograph this large cast into the tiniest of spaces and Bunny Christie's designs combine eloquence with complexity, raising both gasps from the illusions and laughs from some devilishly witty entrances.
One of the couples is now gay, a sensible update, and Jonathan Bailey delivers the most difficult number, the G&S style patter song 'Getting Married Today'. He does it with such comic panache that you forget you're witnessing a nervous breakdown. Elliott hones every detail and Bailey's heartfelt pain has the audience at the edges of their seats and finally in the palms of his hands.
TV star Mel Giedroyc too is wonderfully assured as the waspish Sarah trapped in a slowly melting marriage to Harry (Gavin Spokes). His elegiac 'Sorry Grateful' reminds you that it's probably the most honest song ever written about coupledom.
Broadway legend Patti LuPone of course brings the requisite wit and poise to the rich, alcoholic, Joanne, but you glimpse the pain behind the barbs. Her vocal colouring of 'The Ladies Who Lunch' re-invents it anew.
Joel Fram's arrangements throughout, combined with the sheer vocal finesse of this choice ensemble, make this probably the best sung revival of it you will ever hear.