Review – A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory

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Last night I headed off with my uncle, J and Sue to see A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Now, I approached this whole show with some considerable misgivings, chief among them that, though I am a big fan of musicals, I do not care for Sondheim. I base this on seeing two of his works and finding them not very good (“Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”) and the fact that I generally find his music “tweedley” and just generally not very hummable. Me, I want to walk out of a show singing something, like I did for “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Anything Goes,” but Sondheim doesn’t really leave me with a single memorable musical moment … it’s just kind of noise, like modern operas, though not to the extent that I want to stick an icepick in my ears like I did for “Pierrot Lunaire.”

My second major misgiving was that this whole thing was directed by Trevor Nunn. Now, chances are that if you know anything about musical theater, you’ve probably heard his name before. Unfortunately for me he is forever linked with “Les Mis,” which is stuck in my memory as the very first time I realized a musical could be complete crap. Nowadays I realize that pretty much anything can get hyped beyond all realms of belief and yet still be a steaming pile of poo, but twenty or so years ago this came to me as a tremendous shock. So I figured that once again I was likely to be signing myself up for something that was overdesigned beyond all belief and also hollow at the core.

Well, okay, there was one reason that I did not absolutely believe that this would be the case, and thus bought the tickets in the first place, and this was because this show was being produced at the Menier. Now, my first visit to the Menier was a bit of a disaster; the show (“Playing Our Song”) was a turkey and I left the theater with huge scrapes on my knees from the overly close seating arrangement. However, I loved the space; intimate as all get out (a bit much so in regards to the other audience members) and a really amazing place to watch people singing big songs to you from ten feet away. I’ve also been pretty impressed by the Menier’s record at getting its shows transferred elsewhere; while I can’t imagine why I’d ever bother with “Sunday in the Park with George” (as transferred to Broadway) its “La Cage,” now on the West End, is apparently quite the thing, and I thought that chances were better than not that this would be a good show and I’d be pleased to say “I saw it when” etc.

But then of course there was the Sondheim angle. Bit of a roll of the dice, eh, but the tickets were bought, and, if nothing else, my uncle was quite pleased to be going to see this show while he was visiting, and, well, the company would be good, so my fingers were crossed.

New to this trip was an Assigned Seating System (woo!) which ensured we could actually relax with our dinner and glasses of port at the Boot and Flogger prior to the show, all the while knowing we’d not have to sit in the row with the four inch wide aisle because we had seats waiting for us. Hurray! Unfortunately, “front row” meant “in the seats designed for people who are under five feet tall,” as we were ridiculously low to the ground and spent the whole time watching the show from over the top of our knees. Oh well, at least we had leg room – though we were a bit worry we might trip up the performers.

The show itself was actually a quite interesting little frippery (based on a Bergman movie – one of the happy ones, apparently) about a middle aged man wedded to an 18 year old girl (Anne Egerman, played by Jessie Buckley), who have an unconsummated marriage; he is attracted to a lush actress (named Desiree, my!) with whom he had a liason some years back, while his religious son is in love with the wife (who’s much closer to his age) and hating himself for it. All of this contained sexual energy goes wild when the unhappy family is invited to the actress’ country house for the weekend, at which point the play suddenly turns into one of those Shakespearean comedies of errors in which all true lovers are united at the end and we are sent home with smiles on our faces.

So there I was, hunched in my front row seat, watching these people sing and dance close enough to me that I could see the wrinkles on their faces (except for the 18 year old, whom appears to be actually … well, 19), listening very closely to the music and laughing at the clever libretto (who’d ever think to use “Titian” as a rhyme with “Venetian?”), and I realized … I was actually enjoying myself. Sure, I couldn’t stand Desiree Armfeldt’s (Hannah Waddingham’s) hairdo, which was too “1960s sex goddess,” and the miked voices made me want to tear my OWN hair out, and the actress’ aged 10 or so daughter was just verging on nauseatingly cute and precocious (though I did admire her for singing with so much hair in her mouth – was it all about the hair for me?), and my uncle was gagging a bit on the cigar smoke in Act Two – but wasn’t it all just rather lovely, with the simple, yet effective sets, the 100% professional cast practically sitting in my lap, the very interesting and believable characters? I mean, wasn’t it pretty much the whole package other than some niggling bits?

Anyway, by the intermission I’d perked up quite a bit, and by the end of the show I was thinking, well, who knows, maybe this Sondheim guy isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the fact it was a community college cast I saw performing “Into the Woods” affected how I feel about it. Maybe … maybe Sondheim is a taste best appreciated with age. When I found myself comparing the libretto to Cole Porter’s work, it did make me think I’d turned a corner. At any rate, it was a good evening out, and I do very much encourage people to take themselves down to Southwark and catch this show – it’s on for three months so you should have a bit more luck than you would at the typical Donmar production.

(This review is for a performance on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. For a far more thorough review, please read the West End Whingers, who got a lot of benefit out of buying a program. Too bad I could find so little information about the cast on the Menier’s site – perhaps they’re shy.)

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9 Responses to “Review – A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Jessie Buckley Fan Says:

    ermm what are you talking about? Do you call this a review because i dont recall you commenting on any of the casts performances.
    I have seen the show myself and loved it, as have many other people including journalists. You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.
    Jessie Buckley is the best!

  2. fineeyes Says:

    I didn’t become a card carrying Sondheim fan until about two years ago when I was 18 and heard A Little Night Music, fell head over heels and now can’t get enough of him.

  3. mike Says:

    Yes its a bit of a jump from the ex factor to sondheim, i am so pleased you loved the show as it is a masterpiece. phew

  4. webcowgirl Says:

    I’m pretty well unfamiliar with the X Factor as I don’t have a TV at all – if you can’t tell I don’t really even have the time to watch shows – so I am unfamiliar with TV stars altogether and can’t keep up with movie stars, either. I am all theater, all the time! (Well, that and ballet.)

  5. JohnnyFox Says:

    I’m also too mean to buy a programme, but you can usually get the cast and crew listing on whatsonstage.com.

    John
    http://www.blowstar.blogspot.com

  6. Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008 « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] the seats I had for “They’re Playing Our Song,” and my front row seats for “A Little Night Music” put my eye level at about the height of my knees. Do these people never actually watch the […]

  7. Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre (Southwark ) « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] that grows on you as you age – like a taste for red wine and truffles – since I enjoyed A Little Night Music when I saw it at the Menier this fall. The songs aren’t really any more tuneful than they […]

  8. Review – Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] can thing about is how small and close the chairs are; but the number of winners (like the lovely A Little Night Music and the hysterical Forbidden Broadway) outweigh the losers, so hey, I figured, I’ll fly Air […]

  9. Review – Passion – Donmar Warehouse « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] at all based on the two versions of Into the Woods I’d seen. However, A Little Night Music (at the Menier) gave me an inkling that there might be more to him that first met the ear, and Company convinced […]

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