ONSTAGE LONDON -- June 1996
It is now three months since the dazzling Sam Mendes production of Stephen Sondheim's Company first opened at the Warehouse. Now it has transferred to the Albery Theatre with (mercifully) all its cast intact, and if such a thing be possible, even better than they were originally.
When it first opened back in 1972, it struck me as the first truly modern and innovative musical since West Side Story almost 20 years earlier. Company was the first triumphant concept musical: Built around a series of disconnected one-act plays by George Furth, it has no hit song, an ending of such true ambiguity that it could be happy or tragic, but no message of good cheer for its audience. Instead, it remains a bitter, cynical and deeply Manhattan look at the state of modern matrimony ("Marry Me a Little"), which resolutely refuses to tug on any heartstrings ("Marriage may be where it's been but it's not where it's at").
Company has all the warmth of a crossword puzzle and all the gentle charm of an electric carving knife. But technically it's as flawless as the Pan Am skyscraper a brisk, stunning show that is in its way as brilliant a dissection of marital disharmony as Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is the postwar Broadway musical I admire more than any other; Mendes has made some changes for l996, including the introduction of one originally-cut song and a greater emphasis on drugs and homosexuality and, more controversially, resetting the whole show as a dream sequence. But this remains one of the landmark musicals of the century, and 25 years have in no way dimmed its revolutionary genius.
Company was the first show to define what we now truly mean by Sondheimesque; it is not a heavily danced musical, despite one breathtaking routine in Act II, but the story of a 30-something bachelor on his birthday, surrounded by eight unhappily married couples, all determined to marry him off is not in the end as anti-marriage as it may seem. Two is very difficult, the show tells us, but one is always worse.
THE WHO'S TOMMY
Even within the often chaotic history of stage musicals, The Who's Tommy (now in its London premiere at the Shaftesbury) has an eccentric past. Written 25 years ago by Pete Townshend, it has been a record album, a rock-opera concert, a Ken Russell film; it was also the first pop music ever heard at the Metropolitan in New York, and picked up five Tony Awards when it finally hit Broadway a couple of years ago.
So now that we finally get to see it in London, what is it: essentially still a rock opera in the tradition of such contemporaries as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. But where they both enjoyed plots of a kind, and some sort of dramatic force in book and lyrics, Tommy stubbornly refuses to make any real concessions to Shaftesbury Avenue musical traditions.
True, it has a couple of great songs in "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Touch Me," but the plot remains often unfathomable, and the Broadway director Des McAnuff seems to have decided that the more his show resembles the Planetarium, with lights darting all around the stage and overhead, the less we'll be aware of the great hole that lies at the center of Tommy.
The real problem is that there's nobody here we much care about, least of all the title character who goes deaf and dumb and blind on seeing his father kill his mother's lover and then is miraculously restored by his addiction to pinball machines. Kim Wilde as the mother and Paul Keating as the adult Tommy do their dramatic best to clamber over the gaps in the narrative and make out we have a halfway coherent show here, but the rest of the cast look as though they'd have been happier supporting the original Who for a gig at Wembley Stadium.
Present Laughter is perhaps the most autobiographical of all Coward's 40 plays. It tells the story, in farcical terms, of an egocentric, rapidly aging actor-manager and the various wives, mistresses, secretaries and would-be playwrights who make his already neurotic life a living hell.
Look and listen to this play carefully, and you will hear the authentic sound of the Master's voice. Like Hay Fever, the slow-starting plot sets up a series of manic character studies and then runs away with breathtaking speed and confidence.
Richard Olivier has directed with real affection for the play; Peter Bowles offers a brilliant sketch of an actor constantly on the brow of a career hill down which he fears falling; and David Arneil is wonderfully mad as the trainee playwright on whom the Noel character bestows his whole theory of theatre.
So, we have a strong, faithful and often hilarious production of a classic prewar comedy. What then explains the unjustly hostile reaction of almost all my critical colleagues? Through virtually all their reviews has run the theme that it is no longer enough just to revive Coward: that somehow there has to be some kind of directorial gimmick to make the play "work for the nineties." The joy for me, however, is that this time they have gone right back to the play as first conceived, with a director who has no desire to "make his mark" at the expense of a dead author. We should be cheering, not moaning: This play has always worked, will always work so long as directors stand aside and, as Olivier has done, let Present Laughter work on its own terms.
-- By Sheridan Morley