A hot July evening in West Yorkshire proved to be the perfect backdrop for a musical set at the Scandinavian midsummer, as the theatregoers of Leeds joyfully returned to a stunning adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s puckish, satirical operetta from Leeds Playhouse and Opera North. Written in 1973, during a golden period of his gilded career, ‘A Little Night Music’ shows Sondheim at the peak of his powers, utilising his tongue twisting lyricism and complex musicality to stunning effect, against the backdrop of a country weekend in ‘fin de siecle’ Sweden.
Sondheim always chooses arcane subject matter around which to base his work, everything from a Seurat painting (Sunday in the Park with George) to homicidal pie making (Sweeney Todd), have been used by him as source material and ‘Night Music’ has its origins in a 1955 Ingmar Bergman film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’. He uses these varied back clothes to explore the human condition, especially relationships in all their messy and imperfect glory and the barbed witticisms contained within the book of ‘A Little Night Music’ represent some of the finest work by his long time collaborator Hugh Wheeler.
The plot is sometimes reminiscent of a Feydeau farce, revolving around the struggle of middle aged lawyer Frederik Egerman (Quirijn De Lang) to reconcile his love for his younger flighty wife Anne (Corinne Cowling), with his much stronger passion for his old flame Desiree Armfeldt (Stephanie Corley). He unknowingly competes for Anne’s love with his own son Henrik (Laurence Kilsby) and with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Christopher Nairne) for the attention of Desiree. The tone is set for their respective priorities with three early songs (Now, Later and Soon) which mesh together into a soaring crescendo of competing aspirations and differing desires.
In this production all the frailties of the male sex are laid bare for ridicule. Frederik is the indecisive, weak older man trying vainly to recapture his youth (It Would Have Been Wonderful); Carl Magnus is a swaggering, violent buffoon (In Praise of Women) and Henrik is an angst ridden youth dressed in all black, looking and sounding like he mistakenly wandered in from an Ibsen play.
It is left to the women to convey the emotional contradictions of love and both Anne and Desiree are convincingly portrayed as the central interests, but the audience is constantly drawn to the supporting female characters who provide much of the humour, pathos and depth to the production. Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Helen Evora) steps forward in Act Two as the drunken, insulting flirt and Petra (Amy J Payne) celebrates the pleasure of the moment with a blistering rendition of ‘The Miller’s Son’. However, elegantly outpacing everyone was Dame Josephine Barstow as the waspish Madame Armfeldt, channelling Lady Bracknell she has some of the evening’s most memorable lines, ‘A pleasurable means to a measurable end’ when describing sex, could have come straight from Oscar Wilde. Her wistful reminiscences (Liaisons) artfully juxtaposed against the earworm that is ‘A Weekend In The Country’ which ended the ninety minute first act on a high note.
Set Designer Madeleine Boyd created a stunning fountain as the central feature after the interval, and Director James Brining utilises this to comic effect. Allowing a Quintet to act as a Greek chorus commenting on events whilst remaining on stage throughout (Perpetual Anticipation) pushed the musicality in a more operatic direction, contrasting well with the songs that came from a more musical theatre tradition. Seeing the most famous of these songs (Send In The Clowns) performed by Stephanie Corley in the context of the show, gave it a real poignancy and later as a duet with De Lang it had real emotional depth. Supported by a full twenty five piece orchestra led by Conductor James Holmes, the lush waltzes and full weight of the score were breathtakingly realised. A huge cheer greeted the orchestra reveal at the curtain, reflecting how much audiences have missed the sound of live music onstage and the spectacle of a night at the theatre.
Overall, a sumptuous theatrical evening stamped with Sondheim class, superbly realised by a company at the top of their game.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 14th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★