Company

Date 8th April 2016
Society South Manchester AOS
Venue Royal Northern College of Music
Type of Production Musical
Director Kevin Proctor
Musical Director Steven Mercer
Choreographer Kevin Proctor

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Author: David Slater

Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' is very much a product of its own particular time and place - when the groovy 1960s tipped over into the 1970s and the USA found itself waking up with a rather nasty hangover from the excesses of the metaphorical 'night before' - yet also has a contemporary relevance, tackling as it does the fundamentals of different relationships, urban angst and the nature of the human condition; topics which are as timeless as ever, no matter when the setting. This was a time where increased sexual freedom, the impact of feminism, the loosening of moral codes and the breaking down of 'traditional' relationships brought new opportunities but also new problems, as the Baby Boom generation finds itself lost in uncharted relationship territory. George Furth's series of one act plays having been knocked about and rearranged by Hal Prince and Sondheim in the form of what one might call a 'revue-sical' rather than a straightforward musical, 'Company' offers a non-linear approach with little in the way of plot or a straightforward 'story' narrative, concentrating instead on presenting a series of snapshots of the lives of our merry band of New Yorkers. Bobby - our 'Everyman' figure - is afraid of commitment and the occasion of his 35th birthday brings us together with all his married friends: the show then bounces along merrily, taking a look at the different relationships with a sardonic eye in a series of different scenes with Bobby as the link between the cast of quirky couples. SMAOS did a superb job in bringing 'Company' to life and provided this humble NODA reviewer with just about the most satisfying evening at the theatre that I can remember in a very long time. Here was something worth doing, done very well indeed; an alarmingly rare event in these days of dreadful 'jukebox' musicals, shows based on rather limp films or any attention-grabbing novelty subject with all the wit and wisdom of a damp flannel which seem to be what audiences seem to want to cling to in the cultural wasteland of contemporary musical theatre. Here was a show which had something to say and which had a great artistic team behind it to really bring it to life: a really special night at the theatre was the result.

With such a superb overall team effort, it seems in some sense invidious to pick out particular scenes and performances - if only for the sake of the word count of this write-up! - but I shall nevertheless endeavour to steer a happy middle course and do my best to throw as much light on this fabulous production as I can anyway.

The opening scene did perhaps feel a bit cramped initially with the cast buzzing around and the rather cleverly disguised introduction of the prop scenery boxes (as Bobby's birthday presents) filling the limited performance space rather quickly but this was something that was soon accepted and forgotten, given the drive and energy of all concerned. Costumes were very much in and of the period and established the feel of the setting very well indeed - if I had to have a favourite, I think I'd plump for Celia McGoldrick's very fetching ensemble, with Robert Haslam's vibrant polo-neck coming a close second - as the whole cast looked great. Again, the odd wobble from the skyline/doors at the rear of the stage was very soon forgotten as the performances became the focus of the evening to the exclusion of everything else. The series of vignettes bounced along so cleverly and with such artistry and grace that one felt able to sit back and luxuriate in the evening's entertainment.

Thomas Guest gave a very good performance as Robert, the central bachelor figure around whom the whole show revolves. A very demanding role which Thomas took very much in his stride, he proved to be excellent company all evening. Often called upon to act as 'straight man' to the rest of the colourful cast of eccentrics, Thomas managed to act as a most sympathetic guide for the evening: 'Being Alive' was a suitably poignant and emotional summation in his hands at the end of the show.

Winning the award for 'most neurotic couple of 1970', Robert Haslam and Laura Aremia as Harry and Sarah were quite excellent in the second scene, packing in so much humour and thoughtful character analysis in such a short space of time. Much humour was wrought from the ambivalent 'The Little Things You Do Together' and the poignancy of 'Sorry Grateful' was expertly done too. Robert and Laura were quite excellent throughout the show and really brought their characters to life. Serial divorcers Peter and Susan were two more technicolor creations in the capable hands of Andrew Ryder and Philippa Shellard and our two visits to the terrace of their apartment were particular highlights of the show. The three ladies in Robert's life were quite magnificent: Stephanie Niland, Sarah Peach and Kirsty Hatton as Marta, April and Kathy were all quite superb and their rendition of 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy' was another highlight of the show. Another contrasting couple, David and Jenny, were also perfectly drawn by Patrick Massey and Celia McGoldrick - one could almost see and smell the haze of smoke over the stage in their scene together - and another peerless set of performances came in the shape of Hannah Davis as Amy and Alex Re as Paul: 'Not Getting Married Today' was pin sharp - I heard every syllable - and a truly bravura theatrical event.

Richard Townhill pitched his performance just right as Larry and Nicola Smythe did the impossible with her performance as Joanne: erased all memories of Elaine Stritch and gave us a fantastic, mound-breaking rendition of 'The Ladies Who Lunch' (I kid you not dear reader).

I mentioned at the outset that I thought it would be difficult, if not downright unfair, to single out particular performances, scenes, 'moments' or songs as the show is very much an ensemble piece and only works if everyone involved is firing on all cylinders. This is a thoughtful, witty, clever show with a lot to say; musically very rewarding and with ideas fizzing from curtain up to finale, it needs assured handling. You'll have gathered by now that this production had it in spades. 'Side by Side' looked and sounded fantastic; 'Barcelona' was every inch the witty meditation on the 'moment' -which somehow manages to say several things at once without you noticing - that it should have been; 'Another Hundred People' was the thrilling portrait of a city which both fits perfectly in the show and yet transcends it, as is the case with all great art... The list of perfectly polished jewels in the crown is endless. Sondheim's emotional fence-sitting and his ambivalence suit the subject matter superbly and the result is a wonderfully direct and very honest exploration of the human condition. It takes a production team of some ability to really bring the best out of 'Company' without falling into the trap of making a production of the show a very 'theatrical' cavalcade of campy Sondheim-worship: this production had the great merit of creating a wholly consistent and engaging piece of theatrical magic and which made me see the show as if through a clearer and fresher lens.

Kevin Proctor's direction was clear, focused and thoughtful, bringing out the best from his cast and was in full control of the overall 'vision' of the production: both the artistic direction and choreography were second to none. The occasional addition of a small chorus of New Yorkers added much to the feel of the evening and was a nice touch too. Musical Director Steven Mercer marshalled his musical forces superbly and if I initially missed the fidgety, 'retro' electronic sound I was used to from the original Broadway cast album, that's very much a rather pointless and ridiculous gripe on my part and that slight disappointment lasted all but a matter of a few seconds in any case!  A hiccough or two with the sound balance was about the only minor issue of any consequence I could raise but it certainly didn't detract from the overall feel of what was a resoundingly successful and intelligent evening's entertainment.

I could go on at some length about this very special production but suffice to say, it was definitely just about the best production it has been my good fortune to experience during my tenure as a NODA rep and will live long in the memory.

My thanks and heartfelt congratulations go to all at SMAOS and I wish you well with your next production in your new home at the Z-Arts Theatre in Hulme. Let us hope more societies can rise to the challenge of inspiring audiences with shows of this quality: isn't it about time that 'something worth doing, done well' became the first consideration of the amateur stage as it obviously was here, rather than being an occasional happy accident...?