“this exquisite production still bubbles with hope”
The year 2020 will be remembered, for many, as the year of outtakes. Our plans – and in some cases our hopes and dreams – strewn on the cutting room floor. It seems timely, then, to be reminded of the song-cycle, “Marry Me A Little”, which comprises, in the main, a collection of Stephen Sondheim numbers that were cut from some of his most noted shows – particularly ‘Follies’ and ‘A Little Night Music’. Sondheim was a master of the ‘could-have-been-should-have-been’ love song; a theme that pulses through this show and resonates all the more as we approach our own individual winter of discontent and isolation.
The two anonymous characters are alone, in their own New York apartments. Initially, it is not completely clear whether they are an estranged couple or merely strangers, but they both share a burning desire to reconnect somehow. The show could just as easily be titled ‘Two Fairy Tales’, the opening number which is sung with a melancholic optimism that sets the scene for the next sixty minutes. Devoid of any plot and dialogue, the show is carried by Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker who undeniably give real depth to a fairly narrow concept. The two beautiful voices on display lavish extra layers of meaning and poignancy onto the lyrics, while their harmonies unite their separation. While knowing little about them you do, in fact, care quite deeply.
Kirk Jameson’s production brings the narrative into the Tinder Age, the pair swiping texts and images on their phones as they sweep through the numbers. The split lives are neatly conveyed by the split set and split screen backdrop. But the focus is always on the music. Stripped back to just Arlene McNaught’s piano accompaniment the songs’ lyrical content is pushed centre stage and it is a pure delight to hear the richness of Sondheim’s libretto delivered with comparable splendour by Houchen and Schoenmaker. From the Jazz Age, innuendo laden, pastiche of ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot!’ and the yearning harmonies of ‘Who Could Be Blue?’ – both cut from “Follies”; through to the familiar ‘Marry Me A Little’ from “Company”; and the relatively unknown but hauntingly beautiful ‘The Girls of Summer’. The show packs in nearly twenty of Sondheim’s compositions in just one hour, closing with another number that never initially made the grade – the aptly titled ‘It Wasn’t Meant To Happen’ – steeped in yearning, regret and nostalgia.
A nostalgia that is sadly brought to the fore watching an online show of such a performance. Recorded with a socially distanced audience before the second lockdown, the sense of loss is unavoidable. Musical revues of this kind never fully translate to the small screen. “… The champagne was flat, the timing was wrong…” Sondheim’s closing lyrics tell us. Yet this exquisite production still bubbles with hope. Like this collection of songs that has eventually made it onto the stage, we too can all pick up the debris of this disastrous year and build something memorable.
In the meantime: “So what can you do on a Saturday night alone?” sing Houchen and Schoenmaker early on in the show. And straight away you know the answer.
“the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness.”
It seems an age ago now but back in March, when the New York Governor ordered Broadway’s theatres to close as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the city, there was still the feeling in London that ‘it won’t happen to us’. But lo and behold, four days later, the Prime Minister’s statement ensured our theatres followed suit. The mass exodus of London’s West End and the fringe left an eerie silence that filled the playhouses, as they started to gather dust. Many, like Southwark Playhouse, remained frozen in time; the empty music stands, props on the stage floor and, lit only by the ghost light; the centre-piece grand piano, silent on the now-motionless revolve. Waiting.
The waiting was longer than we initially thought, but seven months later to the day, and leading the way in the reopening of our theatres, Katy Lipson (in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group) kicks off where we left off with Jason Robert Brown’s powerful two-hander, “The Last Five Years”. Despite the plexiglass and socially distant seating, as the first notes fill the auditorium it feels like the intervening months never really happened. In tune with the time-twisting concept of the piece the audience are transported back to March of this year into an alternative existence wherein this nightmare may never have happened. The energy of Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch is undimmed and the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness. They tell us the story, through song, of two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, as they travel through five years of their relationship. He is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day.
It is a clever device that gives us insider knowledge. We know how it is going to end right from the start and are free to concentrate on the journey each character makes. The downside is the inevitable predictability, but the focus is on Brown’s compositions; all beautifully crafted, with a range of styles; yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs. And director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Matching Higginson’s and Lynch’s faultless interpretation of the characters is their musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”.
In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as the two advance and retreat along their own paths. Ironically, that is the show’s one minor flaw. It is easy to forget, when the actors are sometimes only inches apart, that they are years apart in the narrative. It often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and this unintentional self-centredness occasionally leaves us cold. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
Yet the performances consistently manage to sweep this slight distraction away with their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, we are spellbound, and our belief in the magic of musical theatre is unquestionably reaffirmed.