Side by Side by Sondheim Review 2015

Our critics rating: 
Monday, 14 September, 2015
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It's hard to imagine a time when Sondheim felt more 'underground' and hit songs such as "Being Alive", "Another Hundred People", "The Boy From" and "Losing My Mind" were firmly filed under 'rarely performed'. The charm of this Sondheim revue, which charts his career up to 1976, comes more from the context of being a 40th anniversary production rather than being anything new or innovative, but the genius of his music and the sharpness of his lyrics can never be denied.

When originally performed, in a highly successful production that starred Julia McKenzie and Millicant Martin which ran in the West End for 806 performances, it was a rare opportunity to hear some of Sondheim's songs out of context, along with deleted songs and music from productions that had flopped before reaching the UK.

In an age when Sondheim's work has had to be restricted within the M25 by the rights holders for fear of overexposure, 'Side By Side By Sondheim' feels incomplete and in many ways fairly basic. Further revues such as 'Marry Me a Little', 'Putting it Together' and 'Sondheim on Sondheim' offer more for audiences by way of narrative, biographical information and song selection, and this certainly feels like an early attempt at honouring the great composer, albeit a respectful and entertaining one.

Unlike the above, there is no attempt at a narrative, just loose themes connecting segments narrated by musical director Stuart Pedlar who was part of the original production. The relaxed atmosphere is certainly part of the production's charm, but I feel the lack of depth in both the song selection and accompanying stories may frustrate audiences who are more accustomed to his work.

This is a handsome production in the welcoming environment of the Brockley Jack Studio, presented on a thrust stage with acoustic vocals, accompanied by two onstage upright pianos. With just a few chairs and minimal props, the scenes shift effortlessly, as the cast become part of the audience resulting in a dinner-theatre style cabaret experience.

With just three hard working performers there are at times a lack in variety of vocal types - but all three throw everything they have at the widest character tracks in any show. The production works best when songs are played out of context - torch songs and even the lighter duets from 'Do I Hear a Waltz?' and 'Company' exist in the moment and suit the cabaret style of performance. Set pieces such as 'A Boy Like That' and 'Gotta Have a Gimmick' attempt to recreate key moments of the original shows and fail to convey either the tension or the humour and aren't as successful.

Whilst some may feel a gap in the repertoire, namely the Lapine years and Sondheim at his darker and more assured, there is plenty to enjoy as the show treads familiar ground. Fresh arrangements of 'Losing My Mind' and 'Conversation Piece' will keep aficionados on their toes, whilst those coming to the composer for the first time will be given enough to pick and chose favourites.

Sarah Redmond, who stepped into the production with just a week to rehearse, excels at providing the most diverse character range. She brings humour and heart to numbers such as "You Must Meet My Wife" and "The Boy From", and knocks "I'm Still Here" out of the park, despite being significantly younger than the Elaine Stritch rules of performance which cites a singer should only attempt to perform it once they've reached 80.

Marianne Benedict has a strong and varied voice, but at times works far too hard with the material, overselling some numbers and signposting the intricate lyrics which feels quite shallow. "Another Hundred People" in particular had more gesticulation than the sign language interpreter on 'Hollyoaks'. The beauty of Sondheim is that no smoke and mirrors are needed - he writes for the performer and you need to fully embrace and trust in the material to carry you where less is certainly more.

Grant McConvey has perhaps the hardest track, ranging in ages, character type and vocal ranges effortlessly. He is suitably expressive and engaging to watch, bringing a strong and assured vocal quality to "Being Alive" and "Could I Leave You?". He embraces the full potential of Sondheim's male characters by making the audience fall in love, hate, lust for and want to be him - no mean feat.

Despite feeling fairly primitive, this is a delightful opportunity to see this original revue in a charming context, aided by two exceptional musicians.


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