Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre

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On Sunday, J and W and I headed to Southwark for the current musical at the Union Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Ever since Annie Get Your Gun I’ve been hoping to catch another red-hot musical there, but the Mikado sold out before I could go and an anti-Sweeney guest kept me from making it to see the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This time I was quick out of the gate, though, as Company had been open for all of four days when I saw it, which meant the cast was nice and fresh – and yet the audience was still on top of things, as there was only one seat open in the house!

I hadn’t heard of Company before, despite having heard of a song from it (“Side by Side,” as in Side by Side by Sondheim). I’m a little late to the Sondheim game, anyway, since I have long disliked Into the Woods and took it as being representative of his style and thus a good warning to stay away. Rambling weird non-singing and non-music? Not really my bag – I want hummable tunes and the occasional anthem a la Anything Goes and Drowsy Chaperone. But, who knows, I’ve got this theory that Sondheim may be something 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 ever were, but something about the crap people have been churning out (modern musicals, I mean, think “Wicked”) has made brilliant lyrics that much more important to me, and I found myself paying attention 100% to what people were saying on stage during that show … and looking forward to this one, even though I knew little about it.

What I did know went kind of like this: Bobby (Lincoln Stone) is a single guy in his mid-30s. He has 5 couples as friends (his “company,” who value his company) – who all want to see him coupled up. While spending time with them, we get to see vignettes of each couple’s dynamic, which kind of throws the whole “OMG you must get married it’s THE BEST” attitude into a state of comic irony … while also setting us up for some very deep thoughts on what couplehood actually means. It’s one thing to crack a joke about the ball and chain (and it’s an easy laugh), but couple dynamics actually allow for some really messed up relationships to develop (ie Strindberg’s The Creditors), in addition to the positive ones. And in this examination of complexity, Sondheim’s own intelligence, his skill as a lyricist, really comes through. It’s occasionally a comic play, but at its core it’s a rather bleak examination of marriage as a commodity, of coupledom as a destructor of self, of a society that ignores the failings of this institution in favor of pushing conformity. Really, it practically begs for a few humorous moments to make its underlying themes digestible.

As usual, the Union folks made good work out of the shoestring budget they had – no stinting on talent (fourteen actors and a five piece band), but an ultra-bare set (a column and a table-sized light box) and light costuming. Actually, the costumes looked a little better than they’re usually able to afford, a nice palette of tans and browns that was evocative of the 70s without being a slave to it (witness completely inaccurate Juicy Couture tracksuits with thong underwear peeking above the waistline – absolutely not of the era), jazzed up with splashes of red for Bobby’s various love interests. The cast was also managing to pretend to be American well enough, though gorgeous Jenny Layton’s Southern Susan sounded like she fell out of a can of corn pone (Steven Craven as her husband Peter having more of the Dennison’s Chile sound, say via Montana). Unfortunately the show started with Samantha Seager (Sarah) just completely losing her accent in the middle of her scene, while her character’s husband Harry (Tom Hyatt) seemed confused about the name of the offense for driving under the influence – “drunk driving” in America, not “drink driving” (that would imply the bottle itself was behind the wheel). You’d think with English actors’ general ability to do 40 different accents at the drop of the hat they’d work a bit on throwing a few American options into the mix, but maybe theater schools here don’t find it a worthy thing to study. (New Jersey accents would have been perfect for Sarah and Harry.)

Notably radiating star power was Lucy Williamson as the bitter, three times married Joanne, “a wildy conceited broad with no self esteem.” She only really starred in one scene, but in each of the company ensembles she pretty well owned the stage, and her accent never dropped for a second. In fact, she was the very incarnation of a tough-as-nails New Yorker friend of mine. That said, she got a bit too angry during her big moment with our protagonist, popping me suddenly into “oh yeah, I’m really just watching a show with people acting” mode. I wouldn’t normally push people toning it down, but Ms. Williamson burned so brightly she didn’t actually need to flame out during this scene.

That said, my favorite moment in the show was Amy (Marisa Leigh Boynton) and Paul (Paul Callen)’s scene, in which they are about to go to the church and get married but Amy is getting cold feet – and more than a touch mental. She managed to be completely nuts – even having bizarre fantasies in which a ballerina (Lucy Evans, also hysterical and freakshowish as Bobby’s flight attendant girlfriend April) walks through a church wielding a butcher knife – racist, and ultimately sympathetic. Of all of the couple vignettes, this one showed more than the others how support is part of the equation as well as obligation and every other thing that binds two people together.

Now Lincoln Stone – he’s fine, but in some ways it seems like his character, despite all of the singing, is more of a thread to tie the other couples together rather than an entity with an exciting story of his own to move through. He’s fine (and looks nice in his shirtless scene with April), but … this show really needs more than him. It’s about the company, after all, and fortunately Michael Strassen didn’t pick a bunch of wallpaper for the rest of the show. And they’re there, in your face, in the tiny theater, singing without microphones, and really making it happen. And all this is only £15. Amazing, I tell you. This is a really good show, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

(Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Book now or forever regret you missed this. See Feigned Mischief for an alternate review.)

FYI: Union Theatre is trying to gather enough donations to buy a baby grand piano – checks for £25 per key being accepted. Make ’em out to “The Union Theatre” and send ’em off to 204 Union Street, SE10LX. I feel like I owe them for the good entertainment they’ve provided me and am encouraging anyone else that enjoys what they’ve been doing to pony up.

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23 Responses to “Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre”

  1. Review Preview: Sondheim’s “Company” at Union Theatre Southwark awesome « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Devine – Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2009 at St. John’s Smith Square Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre […]

  2. michael Says:

    Good Grief! Just how old are you and where have you been hibernating that you’ve never even heard of “Company”?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’m 41 and, like I said, I’ve been avoiding Sondheim altogether after being scarred by Into The Woods. My tastes are for golden age Broadway musicals, not the modern stuff – mostly I draw the line right after Chicago. I’ve been “hibernating” in Seattle, which is mostly a good town for fringe theater, but is not so much for musicals.

  3. Nick Says:

    Hey I saw this and did not realise it was set in the 70’s, thought the mobile phones and Juicy Coutoure tracksuit brought it up to the present times. And some of the accents were a little off at times but thought the acting was superb. A great production, the best thing have seen in a long time.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Actually, if you know anything about American culture, the sex and drugs make it really clear that the 80s (“just say no” and AIDS) have not happened.

  4. Nick Says:

    But surely mobile phones were not every day gadgets in the 70’s in America? And at one point one of the women gets out a camera phone and starts filming Bobby having sex with April, I would say it is set in present times but I guess it is open to interpretation. I’m not sure what you mean about the sex and drugs issue, there wasn’t any drugs in the show and so I’m not sure how you can say that the sex and drugs make it clear that the 80’s haven’t happened. But then you are right, I don’t now that much about American culture…..

  5. webcowgirl Says:

    You do sure sound like you’re involved with the show. Just adding a mobile phone doesn’t take care of the 70s culture that infuses it – America (and New York) has just really changed a lot since it was written. The words and the action date the show indelibly, just as much as racial strife (pre-voting rights, post-WWII) marks To Kill A Mockingbird as late 50s/early 60s and a lack of anti-retroviral drugs stamps Angels in America as early 90s.

    Unfortunately the accents were a problem – they weren’t consistent, they occasionally disappeared, and the Southern ones were just bad, a la Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

  6. Jason Says:

    I’m really surprised, there’s sure a lot of defensive comments from people going on here for what is essentially a ravingly positive review.

    @nick: The presence of a cell phone or a tracksuit doesn’t counter the rest of the text feeling like it was written in a different age. (c’mon, it was brown velour, how 70’s is that?!?!) But I will admit not noticing the filming anyway, since I was too busy watching people having sex onstage.

  7. Tom Says:

    I saw the show 3 days ago with a friend and loved it, i thought it was defenately set in the present day as one of the girlfriends had a zac efron bag…. but lets not start that one again. lol

    i thought the songs was electric bouncing off the walls in the small theatre, and all the scenes had great pace. I have had similar conversations with friends scary how it made me think.

    p.s. I thought it was great to hear songs like Being Alive and Ladys who lunch sung with the story and meaning running through it rather than at a cabaret when every one tries to sound as nice as possibe.
    Graet show!!

  8. Rogue Zentradi Says:

    Glad the production is good – they usually are at the Union – but one thing you said needs addressing:

    “no stinting on talent (fourteen actors and a five piece band),”

    The cast aren’t getting paid. All production contracts at the Union are on profit share, and with only around 40 seats a night, the profit to be shared is between minimal and nonexistent. There’s no expenses payout either.

    Of course, this is MO for the Fringe.

  9. harriet Says:

    I don’t understand this issue with the updating of this musical. I saw it yesterday, it was clearly set in the present day. Shakespeare’s plays are almost always thrown into a different period of time, to shake them up, bring something new etc. So why is this any different?

    As a 30 something unmarried person I was there with Bobby on every inch of his journey. It is a remarkable production. Seamless and captivating from start to finish.

  10. hashie Says:

    saw it tonight, it i without doubt flawless an so so fresh. very sex in the city in fact, i liked the german guy addition which added to the international feel as joannes husband. singing was both touching (sorry grateful) to awesome (ladies who lunch)

    i know the show but the messge was so clear, very moving,move over choc factory,this is stunning.

  11. Back from vacation – June theater schedule « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] to go inside a dark theater when there are so many exciting things going on outside. (Not that Company at the Union Theatre wouldn’t get people to crawl out of their deathbeds, but it’s hard […]

  12. NYCExPat Says:

    I saw Company last week on your recommendation and thought it was great. I enjoyed A Little Night Music so much that I’ve been seeking out Sondheim. I’m really glad I stumbled on this one.

    I enjoy your reviews and have bookmarked your site.

    That said (and maybe at this point it’s a dead horse), as an American professional who spent years in NYC prior to moving to London, I disagree that the attitudes towards sex and drugs dated this play. NYC very much still has a hook up culture among singles and drugs are still rampant. I personally don’t indulge, but I’ve been at many a gathering where a joint was lit and passed between friends just as it was shown in the play. And I, like harriet above, very much identified with Bobby.

    I found some of the dialogue dated – particularly the attitude towards women – but you can’t change that without changing the book, and I otherwise thought that the play was set in present day.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      RE: the script dating itself, I’ve found the attitude toward casual marijuana use has seriously changed – no way would a “square” (*snicker*) let her husband pressure her into smoking the way the play depicted – “just say no” has made this a serious barrier between conservative and liberal culture. And people just don’t go lighting up so casually due to fear of “the cops” or what have you. I’ve noticed people are way more casual about this in England than they were in America. To think of growing up without Nancy Reagan! (But maybe my growing up in Arizona and you being in NYC also marks the difference?)

      On the other hand, the competitive husband and wife were timeless, as was the “crazy bride,” but I find it hard to believe anyone would go on using the word “Jew” like she did (“My own Jew,” I think was the line). The political correctness era has really washed a lot of this “color” (read: unconscious racism) out of people’s speech, thank goodness.

      I’m glad they didn’t really mess with the script – I don’t want the original words to be changed to something more au courant. But I’ve been surprised at how much people have felt that just putting people in modern dress and giving them cellphones successfully “updates” a show – it’s not any more successful at taking the time out of a play than Shakespeare was at capturing the political/social zeitgeist of ancient Athens by setting Midsummer there. Fairy society has greatly changed between that time and 1594, as Puck staged a sprites’ revolution around 800 and put Titania and Oberon on cleaning duties, and anyone of Faerie/Elven descent watching the play would have expected far more attention to have been paid to the upcoming revolution in Fae society.

  13. Musical Review: Company « Feigned Mischief Says:

    […] Shenton twittered about how excellent the production was and fellow theatre trotters Johnny Fox and webcowgirl have seen the production ahead of me and gave it glowing recommendations so I was even more […]

  14. harriet Says:

    The rights stop you changing the words and rightly so. The point is that you update a piece by it’s look, by it’s feel, by it’s overall direction. Some lines might be out of date but the point is to reflect today back at an audience in order to carry over the fact that this is a timeless production about the human need/ fear of relationships.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      You are certainly right that the concerns are timeless – I felt the issues about the compromises one makes as a couple were especially thought-provoking.

  15. Review – Pirates of Penzance (all male cast) – Union Theatre Southwark « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Furthermore, this promised the zest and zing of an all-male cast. Woo! It wasn’t going to be Company, that’s for sure, but it sounded like something that I would enjoy immensely – and at […]

  16. Best London theater, 2009 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. Actually, Priscilla […]

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

    […] (at the Menier) gave me an inkling that there might be more to him that first met the ear, and Company convinced me there was. And, well, apparently everyone likes him, so perhaps this was a late […]

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