“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.
“Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations”
The Barn’s Henry V, which ran for a month in 2019, was both a critical and commercial success. The production played to packed houses and added to that theatre’s growing reputation, which led to the Best Fringe Theatre Award at last year’s Stage awards. Now sadly dark, along with all the UK’s other theatres, The Barn live-streamed the production at 6pm last night, in honour of World Theatre Day, and to keep their own flame alive.
Henry V is not an easy play to stage. The action is choppy, and it is blessed and cursed with some of the most famous speeches of the Shakespearean canon. Not only have those speeches been given by some of the titans of theatrical history, but they have also been co-opted time and time again to serve patriotic fervour, for good or ill; most recently by Tommy Robinson and his band of thugs in the Brexit war, which is, of course, the political landscape that this production came out of, and which Hal Chambers (director) quite rightly references. Benjamin Collins’ terrific video projection work makes this quite clear, as does the staging of the political meetings: leaders behind podiums, turning on the charm for the press. The contemporary references don’t stop there; Harry himself is compared to our own Prince Harry – the party prince – and the extended rave montage at the play’s opening firmly situates him in the world of clubs and cocaine, showing the distance he has to travel to be taken seriously as a monarch. The sequence could arguably have been shorter, but the point is well made.
Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations – monarch, soldier, politician – all the while displaying a charming eagerness to do the right thing. This is a Henry who cares, so very much, about his country and his countrymen, and watching the profound weight of that leadership grow within him as the play progresses is one of the pleasures of this performance, and this production. He is supported by a committed and talented cast, whose energy fills the stage to such an extent that it’s hard to credit that there are only eight of them all told. Special mention here to Adam Sopp (Pistol/Constable) and Lauren Samuels (Katherine/Boy) each of whom light up the stage with utterly connected, truthful performances. Pistol’s final breakdown is truly heartbreaking, and Samuels’ physical and emotional embodiment of two such different characters a testament to serious theatrical skill.
The battle scenes are tremendous. Expertly choreographed chaos with bone-chilling moments of explosive violence. Credit to Christos Dante (fight director) and Kate Webster (movement director) here, two members of an exceptionally talented production team, also including Harry Smith, whose original compositions provide the soundtrack. Although there are moments in which an underscore seems surplus to requirements, the music is for the most part used effectively throughout, and is the sonic realisation of the brilliantly-used industrial scaffolding set design.
It is impossible to watch this production without feeling what is missing. And it is as well to be reminded of the irreplaceable electricity of live performance. Filmed theatre is a strange phenomenon; akin to caging a tiger. Zoos have their place, of course, but living, breathing creatures need to be free.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Eve Dunlop
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