The Menier Chocolate Factory has made a rod for its own back with the number of musical productions it has transferred to the West End recently. Sunday In The Park With George, Little Shop Of Horrors and La Cage Aux Folles have all made the short trip from London Bridge, while Maria Friedman: Rearranged opens at the Trafalgar Studio 1 tomorrow.
So there was a weight of expectation lying on A Little Night Music, which opened at the intimate venue yesterday, only augmented by the fact the Sondheim revival is directed by Trevor Nunn and stars a host of the West End’s leading performers and the runner-up of television talent show I’d Do Anything.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night, Sondheim’s musical in waltz time is a tale of lost and found love, of aching for a past that has slipped through your fingers, of searching for a future you cannot find and of the tantalising grasp of sexual desire.
Hannah Waddingham, formerly Spamalot’s Lady Of The Lake, returns to the stage as touring actress Desirée Armfeldt, a woman living the ‘glamorous life’ with a string of affairs in her wake, but constantly away from her daughter and without the caring relationship she so palpably needs.
Around her orbit are a series of characters: Alexander Hanson’s charming Fredrik Egerman, a former flame whose young, naive wife Anne (I’d Do Anything’s Jessie Buckley, making her professional debut) needs a father figure rather than a husband, and whose son Henrik is infatuated with his stepmother; the Count and Countess Malcolm, who don’t realise quite how much they need each other; and Desirée’s mother and daughter, the past and future of a family that has touched opulent greatness and found it as shallow and unfulfilling as a saucer of flat champagne.
In Maureen Lipman, who plays Madame Armfeldt, and Waddingham, the show boasts two of the most gifted comic musical actresses of their generations, who both rein in their ability to go over the top to deliver performances of great, cutting humour but also deep emotional grounding. Lipman, in a very still, wheelchair-bound performance, evokes a woman who, though happy and caring, is full of regret for how her life might have been, her eyes momentarily orbs of resentment, wistfulness and anger.
Waddingham fills not just the stage, but also the auditorium with her charismatic presence, which, though magnetic, does not overpower the rest of the impressive cast.
Sondheim’s musical, with a book by regular collaborator Hugh Wheeler, runs from sex comedy to tragic tale of loss. It is grounded in a delightfully dry wit and cynicism – never more so than in Waddingham and Hanson’s duet You Must Meet My Wife – yet ultimately reinforces the belief that love will always win in the end. Even then, though everything seems happy at the end, there is a bitter sweet taste to this waltz through Scandinavian love lives intertwined in a land where the summer night smiles three times.