Tuesday, July 23

Merrily We Roll Along – Altrincham Garrick Playhouse

With an uncanny sense of timing, Director Joseph Meighan and the creative team at Altrincham Garrick Playhouse open their production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ on the same day it was announced that the current Broadway production won 4 Tony awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. So, if a trip to New York is beyond the budget of south Manchester residents, this week they get the opportunity to see a superb rendition of this poignant commentary on the nature of friendship at their local theatre instead.

On its initial run in 1981, ‘Merrily’ closed after just two weeks and was a commercial disaster for Sondheim and co-writer George Furth, critics at the time found the storyline confusing and the characters unsympathetic and audiences agreed. But, as with many Sondheim productions, a reassessment has happened in the intervening four decades and helped by significant changes in subsequent productions, modern audiences now get a chance to fully appreciate another work in the canon of a modern musical theatre genius.

The original criticisms still have some validity; the story of the friendship between Franklin (Tom Broughton), Charlie (Luke Disley) and Mary (Meg Brassington) is told in reverse chronology and means we meet them at the bitter end of their relationships in the mid 1970’s, then working backwards over twenty years to their first meeting at the launch of Sputnik satellite in 1957. This structure has an immediate drawback for an audience without prior knowledge of the show; they are launched into a story and characters that are fully developed, all of whom are toxic and damaged in different ways, and only discover their reasons and motivations as the plot unwinds over the next two and a half hours.

In the case of the opening night audience, this was obviously disconcerting and the atmosphere was strained as people settled to this challenging narrative, but happily by the conclusion they were held in rapt attention and rose to their feet in unanimous acclaim at the curtain. What is initially confusing becomes beguiling and it works as an uplifting musical principally because it starts with the cynicism of age and ends with the optimism of youth, rather than in a conventional timeline which would have left us with a downbeat ending.

Meighan employs his extensive directorial experience to ensure that the audience are clear in their understanding of Sondheim’s words, the transitions delineating the passage of time are clear and unambiguous and the fabulous on stage orchestra – led by the inimitable Musical Director Mark Goggins – is never allowed to overshadow the subtle lyrics and arch tone of the songs. The large ensemble is marshalled by Choreographer Louise Pettitt, moving the largely female group effortlessly from static chevron into the Fosse like Frug dancing during ‘The Blob’. I felt that the energy from this large group was lacking in the early stages and the wordplay and asides during the opening number ‘That’s Frank’ fell flat, the sharpness required was lacking and will hopefully improve as nerves dissipate and the run progresses.

The featured support were uniformly excellent, I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the character arc of Gussie (Laura Aremia) and Joe (Charlie Tomlinson), the former rising from dowdy secretary to Broadway star, whilst the latter fell from successful producer to a man both broke and broken following their divorce. Laura Whitley gave an eye catching performance as Franklin’s first wife with her portrayal of Beth perfectly pitched from the outset. The initial rendition of ‘Not a Day Goes By’ was sublime and made all the more emotional by the later reprise, when the context is so different but possibly more heartbreaking, I confess I shed a small tear

The leading trio were all well cast and demonstrated the necessary chemistry to convince, all starting from unsympathetic premises they gradually peeled back the cynicism to reveal the underlying love and shared experiences of their lives. Tom Broughton brought assuredness to the central role of Franklin Shepard, more convincing in the younger iteration as the show progressed, he was the pivot around which more demonstrative performances orbited. At the other end of the experience scale and making a fabulous debut at Altrincham Garrick, Luke Disley gave Charlie a beautiful downtrodden everyman character at the outset (think Amos in Chicago), before bursting with manic musical energy during his breakdown live on television (Franklin Shepard Inc). However, as strong as the cast was, it was Meg Brassington who blazed through the evening like Sputnik across the heavens, from her first appearance, drunk and cynical and defeated, through her unrequited love for Franklin, all the way through to her initial meeting with her friends at the end/beginning, all facets of the character were fully realised. Real pathos combined with comedy is a difficult balance to achieve and Meg carried it off sumptuously, from the knockabout of ‘Old Friends’ to the pure comedy of ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’s cumulating in the emotion of ‘Not a Day Goes By’, this was a superb performance.

Overall, a funny, clever and warm adaptation of an underperformed classic that will hopefully get the audience such a superb production deserves.

To quote a song from the show ‘It’s a Hit’!!

Reviewer: Helen Harrison

Reviewed: 17th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.