Company at the Gielgud Theatre: Conceptual Inconsistencies Mar Spectacular Performances
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped production of Company, the Sondheim classic that depicts a single person’s revolt against social pressures to marry.
‘Phone ring, door chimes, in comes company.’ Marianne Elliott has gender-swapped Stephen Sondheim’s Company, written during the late 1960s. On the success of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, which saw Tamsin Grief become Malvolia, many productions are now experimenting with alternating the gender of key roles in well-established shows. Rosalie Craig plays Bobbie, a role originally written for a man. In this change, it was expected that Bobbie’s rejection of the foregone heteronormative conclusion that she marry and settle down would become a feminist declaration of the empowered, happily single woman. However, despite some impressive performances, what emerges in this new adaptation is a Bobbie who feels wildly out of kilter with the rest of the musical’s writing, her independence stifled by her friends and their vehement impulse to find her a man.
Bobbie is turning thirty-five. Coming home to her flat in New York, Bobbie checks her phone and listens to all the voice messages left by her friends. Of this group, she remains the only one unmarried. In Act One, however, it is painfully clear that the lesson to be learnt is that marriage is not all it appears. Susan (Daisy Maywood) realises her husband, Peter (Ashley Campbell) is exceptional only in his inertia, whilst Jenny (Jennifer Saayeng) clearly finds herself unfulfilled with safe-bet David (Richard Henders). Yes, these images of marital unhappiness demonstrate that to be married does not necessarily mean domestic bliss, but the tableaux offered often feels insufficient as a means of explaining why Bobbie remains unmarried. The famous Sondheim fascinations with missed opportunities and misplaced loyalties are present, however Bobbie’s revered splendour is never fully explained. What emerges, sadly, is not the declaration of independence expected from the gender swap but an ironic re-affirmation of the fact that a woman should be married if her life is to be conceived of as complete by society. As one friend states, ‘A person’s not complete until they are married.’
Yet, that does not mean this is not an enjoyable night out to the theatre. The obsession amongst Bobbie’s friends with the problems of marriage is astoundingly captured in ‘Getting Married Today’. On the day of his wedding, Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) begins to get cold feet, sending him into a spiralling hole of panic. Another gender-swapped role, Bailey’s Jamie (originally Amy) perfectly captures the flighty alarm of this notoriously speedy song. This, combined with the magical entrances and exits of Daisy Maywood’s near-sublime Priest, offers an interpretation of the song that should become the defining version for many years. Never have I desired a mid-show standing ovation so dearly to celebrate the achievement of an musical interpretation.
From the opening song, ‘Company’, Bunny Christie’s stylish design is clear. Clamouring into a small boxed room, the claustrophobic influence of Bobbie’s friends is palpably felt, with actors having to awkwardly side-step each other to hit their cues. In Bobbie’s bedroom, picture-less photo frames imply something of her loneliness and Craig often looks out to the audience hoping almost to find something in the black void of faceless people that are watching her. Moving between a set of individual, neon-lit rooms, the supposed connectivity of Bobbie’s life is often revealed to be a façade, with rooms being separated and thus leaving characters isolated.
It would be a sin to review this show and not mention Patti LuPone, whose Joanne (married three times) is a finely-honed performance. ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, with its powerful imperative to ‘rise’, is an obvious highlight of the entire production, with LuPone’s vitriolic disdain of the women she describes clear in each exaggerated note, and it is an honour to have witnessed such a powerful performance. Also impressive was Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes, the former an image of faux-friendliness whilst the latter a warmer figure. No more the Coughing Major, Spokes proves again after his time in Guys and Dolls his versatility. Somewhat disappointing was George Blagden’s ‘Another Hundred People’, which lacked the frenzied energy of the city that his character is trying to describe. Despite the conceptual issues suggested above, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie does very well. Craig’s beautiful singing makes one wish Bobbie had another, more energetic song: her ‘Marry Me a Little’ and ‘Being Alive’ are both triumphs that sadly come too late in each act to make her character feel securely independent.
As Company goes into Act Two, with strong performances by LuPone and Craig and the excited opening song ‘Side By Side By Side’, the vision of Elliott’s production begins to unfold on the stage. This production of a Sondheim classic boldly attempts to push at audience’s expectations, and, with some spectacular performances, it feels as if it is well on its way to proving the vital fact that no-body has to marry to feel complete. As LuPone’s Joanne states, ‘I’ll drink to that’.
Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until the 30thMarch, 2019.
Feature Photograph: Brinkhoff Mogenburg