'Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends' review – a rapturous musical tribute by a glorious all-star ensemble

Read our five-star review of Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, featuring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, now in performances at the Gielgud Theatre to 6 January 2024.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

“Isn’t it bliss?” we’re asked at the start of “Send in the Clowns”, the best-known song from the vaunted composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died almost two years ago, age 91. And that number from A Little Night Music occupies pride of place in Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, as piercingly delivered by a longtime Sondheim interpreter, Bernadette Peters, who sings from the heart, yes, but also from the soul.

To answer that question, Old Friends really is bliss. It’s less a reprise of the one-off gala concert that caused a sensation some 18 months ago than a deepening of material. The director-choreographer Matthew Bourne, working with Britain’s leading Sondheimian, Julia McKenzie, has given this cavalcade of song a fluidity matched only by the elegance of the design and the astonishing clarity of conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo and his orchestra. (The Merrily We Roll Along entr’acte is itself nearly worth the price of admission.)

But you also feel that both directors have honed each song to within an inch of its impactful life. You grin at the sheer delight of Damian Humbley, Jason Pennycooke and Gavin Lee wielding feather dusters as they cavort about to “Everybody Ought to Have A Maid”. But you then listen in awe as Peters delivers “Losing My Mind” and hits a difficult top note that many singers far younger than the ageless Peters, now 75, don’t attempt.

The entire venture is the brainchild of Cameron Mackintosh, who is heard on occasion, and briefly seen. But his surpassingly smart conception for this revue has been to impose no narrative upon it. Let the songs, and the singers, do the work, and trust the audience to accommodate this singular repertoire as they will.

I expected to tear up (and did, frequently), but I didn’t expect an output so essential to my own theatrical DNA to emerge so freshly. Bonnie Langford – a child when she was in the Angela Lansbury Gypsy – makes all kinds of sense to sing “I’m Still Here”, and does so without a trace of shtick, letting the sheer grit celebrated in the lyrics power through to her rousing finish.

Similarly, between Elaine Stritch and Patti LuPone, “The Ladies Who Lunch” might seem near-impossible to navigate anew. Try telling that to the astonishing Clare Burt, who comes at the song from within, all but doubling over as if in vivid pain at its defining declaration: “Everybody dies”. She and the invaluable Gavin Lee also remind us that “The Little Things You Do Together”, from Company, is itself a complete one-act play.

Part of the fun is the deliberate mix of assignments, so that people associated with one song watch as their number is handed off elsewhere. Janie Dee, for instance, was a knockout in Follies singing “Could I Leave You” – the same bitter solo crescendo that is now handed to Lee.

Peters originated the Witch in Into the Woods – a part here taken by her thoroughly commanding co-star Lea Salonga, who also delivers a roof-raising “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy, even if Peters was the one to have played Momma Rose on Broadway.

A sense of community, not competition, is on full view throughout a glorious ensemble that includes the bare-chested Wolf of Bradley Jaden and the inestimable Joanna Riding’s rapid-fire patter Amy, from Company. Here is a reminder of this song’s origins before it was gender-flipped for the Marianne Elliott revival at this same theatre.

There’s never a doubt that the creatives are gathered to honour the man of the title, whose life is pictorially documented on the way to a giddy rendition of the “Old Friends” that the cast and their audience by then have become. “Not a day goes by,” sings Peters, that she isn’t thinking of Sondheim, and this show is an unforgettable reminder that she is in no way alone.

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends is at the Gielgud Theatre through 6 January 2024. Book Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends (Photo by Danny Kaan)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy