Rosalie Craig

Review - Stephen Sondheim's Company is 'stunning' at the Gielgud Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Company, first premiered on Broadway in 1970, was always a bold, brilliant musical: a series of brief vignettes (by George Furth) and dazzling songs (by Stephen Sondheim) about the challenges of dating and marriage and the fears of being trapped. The songs and scenes flow in and out of each other in an impressionistic haze as a man, about to celebrate his 35th birthday, confronts his deep-rooted fears about long-term relationships and the loneliness of being on his own.

But in the show's third major West End outing, he is now she - Bobby has become Bobbie - and it is a perennially single woman who is wrestling with these issues.  And by making this sly change, director Marianne Elliott and her thrilling star Rosalie Craig have given a deeply familiar and now nearly half a century old show a seemingly radical make-over that thrusts it into the here and now, yet with hardly any lyric changes required. (One of the few noticeable ones: instead of singing "my service will explain", it becomes "I'll text you to explain").

Other character genders have changed, too: Amy, the anxious, jittery bride who is one of Bobby/Bobbie's best friends and desperately tries to cancel things on her wedding day, has become Jamie, running away from Paul.

These switches are seamless to those of us who know the show intimately, yet it's also striking how newly modern and unfamiliar it makes it all seem, too. It's like seeing an old friend again after a long absence who has lost a ton of weight:  they're still recognisably the same person, but yet also a different person from which layers have been taken away. We watch the show through fresh eyes - and ears. Yet the triumph is still Sondheim and Furth's, as well as the brilliance of their original director Hal Prince, to distil an emotional anorexic's palpable anxieties into a show that dares to tell its story so impressionistically yet tangibly, without the anchor of a plot beyond a surprise birthday party that bookends the show - and which our avoidant hero(ine) fails to show up for.

Rosalie Craig, radiant in a ravishing red party dress, may be playing a tentative, emotionally disconnected character, but she pulls off the astonishing feat of making us connect with her. The character may be defined by her absence from her own life, but Craig brings a pulsing presence to her, one that fully explains the draw she has on her variously coupled friends Joanne and Larry, Harry and Sarah, David and Jenny, and Paul and Jamie, and how they wish she would allow her emotional armour to be taken off (and replaced with amour instead).

Craig also brings an absolutely ferocious attack but also gorgeous musicality to such songs as "Marry Me a Little" and "Being Alive" that respectively end each act, as she comes to realise that she desperately craves making new choices.

She is surrounded by a luxuriously cast group of supporting actors that includes the West End return of Broadway superstar Patti LuPone as the brittle, pugnacious Joanne, who (following in the seemingly inimitable footsteps of the late, great Elaine Stritch) turns "The Ladies Who Lunch" into her own extraordinary anthem of defiance and resilience. LuPone has always been a great actor with a wild, unpredictable vocal attack; but the absolute revelation here is the clarity of her diction, which has frequently previously been less than sure.

Also utterly thrilling: Jonathan Bailey's Jamie who spits out the fast and furious "Getting Married Today" at astonishing speed; Gavin Spokes, Richard Henders and Ben Lewis as the trio of husbands whose yearning "Sorry-Grateful" is the epitome of the show's themes of the contradictory impulses of marriage; and the brilliantly surprising (and eye-poppingly buff) Richard Fleeshman as the airline steward Andy that Bobbie dates. 

Elliott's production is also given a striking modern sheen in regular collaborator designer Bunny Christie's lightbox-framed moving boxes in which the action is set, with New York apartment bedrooms, balconies and street terrace exteriors summoned in an instant. A small, tight band under expert musical supervisor Joel Fram is visible throughout on a platform above the stage.

There have been other wonderful productions of Company, including an indelible Donmar Warehouse revival in 1995 by Sam Mendes that starred Adrian Lester as Bobby, but this version is both a departure into new territory and a stunning reaffirmation of its brilliance.

Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th March 2019.

Company tickets are available now. 

"Company was the first musical I saw on Broadway and has always had a special place in my affections. It is gratifying to see it not just being revived but also intelligently reimagined."
Michael Billington, The Guardian (four stars)

"Elliott's production brilliantly underscores the existential nature of Sondheim's lyrics and George Furth's book. On Bunny Christie's striking set, Bobbie's adventures unfold in a series of glowing frames drifting through the inky dark."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out (five stars)

"This is a take on Company that savours Sondheim's subtleties. In short, it's glorious."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (five stars)

"Elliott's production is fabulous - gorgeously sung, zippily performed and really, properly funny. I can't remember ever laughing more at a musical, in fact."
Alice Jones, iNews (five stars) 

Originally published on

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