After a successful season at the Chichester Festival theatre earlier this year, Erich Segal’s classic, Love Story, transfers to London’s Duchess theatre in the hope that the musical version will be as prolific – and tear-jerking – as the 1970 best selling book and film.
The latter it undoubtedly achieves. The iconic romance loses nothing in translation to the stage, only adding an even bigger lump to your throat. Staged on a completely white set with marbled columns and vast windows – reminiscent of affluent music rooms or the grand hallways of Harvard – a small stringed orchestra and pianist sit on stage to perform the emotive and seemingly familiar soundtrack.
With books and lyrics by Stephen Clark, the composer’s retelling of Segal’s tale sticks religiously to the story of Jennifer Cavilleri (Emma Williams) and Oliver Barrett IV’s (Michael Xavier) love affair; the first a brilliant music student at Radcliffe College from a loving working-class background, the latter a rich Harvard student who has been handed everything on a plate and has handed back only resentment in return.
First chance meeting to spontaneous marriage proposal is told onstage in a matter of minutes, yet the chemistry between the feisty, quick-witted Jennifer and the arrogant but smitten Oliver – her “preppy jock” – is believable and their compelling love/pretend hate relationship is one that has been emulated in romantic comedies ever since.
From money problems to estranged parents, trying for a baby to moving apartments, Jennifer and Oliver’s first years of marriage are played out in compelling scenes in which the warmth of their relationship beams from the stage. Relying on the static minimalist set to convey various locations, a checked tablecloth transforms the space to a Rhode Island deli, and a sophisticated dining table creates the awkward setting for Oliver’s parents’ intimidating house.
Howard Goodall’s score is understated and gentle, with Jennifer’s passion for Bach and Mozart mirrored by a beautiful, classical soundtrack and songs that the cast perform naturally with none of the jazz hands and razzmatazz you might expect from a musical. Any need for the added glitz of dance routines is replaced by an impressively choreographed scene where Clarke’s witty lyrics about living on pasta and surviving on love, results in a fully cooked meal by Williams and Xavier.
Taking on roles made famous by others is never an easy feat, but Williams and Xavier claim the fated lovers as their own, with Williams in particular straying away from Ali MacGraw’s original portrayal of Jennifer, making her far more vulnerable and childlike, while still retaining her self-assured facade. Strong support comes from a cast that includes Peter Polycarpou who shines as Jennifer’s warm-hearted, stereotypical Italian father. The production’s originality is also helped by moving the action out of the long-haired, bohemian 1970s of the book and film and placing it in the slightly more conservative 1960s, helping to make Jennifer’s less-than-feminist decisions slightly more believable.
Whether you are familiar with the story or not, from the outset the tragic conclusion is revealed with Clark choosing to take the film’s famous tagline – What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? – and create a song of the same name that opens and closes what is both a classic weepy and an elegant stage production.