When George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Company made its Broadway debut back in the early seventies it was seen as a departure from the glitz and glamour of classic musicals, and an experiment in modernity that saw ‘real’ people portrayed on stage. As the decades ticked by it started to feel dated, with a central character who it was difficult to care about, and a fragmented plot that made an easy excuse for a wave of lazy revivals.
But it looks like Company has been saved! The musical, now 13 years older than its protagonist, has been dragged kicking and screaming in to the 21st century. Transformed into a masterpiece of theatre, by the genius of Marianne Elliott, in a production that oozes sophistication and class, and which must surely now become the definitive version, because no other could ever hope to come close.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Company centres around the 35th birthday of Bobbie, who is the only one of her friends not married, or at least engaged. Bobbie floats in and out of the lives of her friends, witnessing the consequences of their marriages, all while being pressured to join the club, but which one of her string of lovers can live up to her friends’ expectations?
Of course, this is the first time Bobbie has been ‘Bobbie’, she used to be ‘Bobby’, a male character with a group of entirely heterosexual friends. It’s all turned on it’s head in this production – the female lead with male lovers, and a same sex couple in Paul and Jamie (formerly Amy). Within minutes you find yourself wondering how this musical ever worked with a male lead, and many would argue it never did.
The staging too, designed by Bunnie Christie, seems to come alive more than ever before, vast neon trimmed boxes containing monochromatic walls and furniture glide on and off stage, properly representing the city where these characters live and breathe, and in this production, you can finally connect and empathise with the people in front of you. The orchestra hang above the stage, the heavenly score descending upon the theatre in triumph, and when paired with Liam Steel’s peppy choreography becomes even more of a delight.
Rosalie Craig completely embraces Bobbie as a new character, shedding the skin of her male forerunner opens up new possibilities, which Craig takes every opportunity to explore. She’s on stage for almost the entire show, far more than any other character, but it still doesn’t feel like enough, the audience desperately wanting to soak up every second of Craig’s unforgettable performance, no more so than in her final number, which she truly brings to life.
Patti LuPone is undeniably magnificent as Joanne, resplendent in faux furs amidst a sea of writhing bodies in a trendy nightclub, her ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ a masterpiece that garnered a long and deserved applause from the audience.
Elliot’s production of Company is practically overflowing with musical theatre heavyweights; Mel Giedroyc, wonderful as repressed Sarah, and Matthew Seadon-Young, a beautifully tender Theo. Not to mention Ben Lewis as Larry, Daisy Maywood as Susan and George Blagden as PJ, the list just goes on and on. Then there’s Richard Fleeshman who gives a superbly endearing performance as Andy, with the scene leading up to ‘Barcelona’ being stage magic at it’s very best.
But the performance of the night must surely go to Jonathan Bailey as Jamie, for his outstanding ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’, where he leads the reluctant groom to nearly burst in an explosion of nervous energy while navigating the notorious patter song. The whole scene is a visual joy, and when its over,
it’s unclear for whom the performance was most breath-taking, Bailey or the audience.
Marianne Elliott has assembled an exemplary cast, who capture the very essence of the musical. The gender switch, for whatever reason, just works on every level and the whole production looks simply stunning, with those single vignettes finally wedded together in happy bliss. Perhaps the central premise of Company is still a little old-fashioned, but as much as we try and deny it, getting married is still seen by many as validation from society. If you are going to portray that message on stage then this is the way to do it, a ravishingly refreshing production so close to perfection you’ll fall in love with Sondheim all over again.