Sitting in the Southwark Playhouse auditorium waiting for this show to start, I skimmed the director's notes. In them Joe Fredericks is anxious to inform his eager public of his own involvement in writing musicals (or as he terms them “Playsicals”). Something about this unfortunate choice of words and the generally eager gushing tone of the notes as a whole misgave me. Unfortunately my misgivings proved to be well founded. After the stunningly brilliant productions of Anyone can Whistle and Bells are Ringing which have recently graced off West End venues, the Southwark Playhouse's production of Company is of sadly inferior quality – let down by a director and choreographer who largely fail to get to grips with the nature of the show, and a group of performers pretty uniformly of B-list calibre. Put bluntly there is nobody here performing anywhere close to the standard of Anna-Jane Casey at the Union or Rosalie Craig, Issy van Randwyck and David Ricardo-Pierce at Jermyn Street.
The first problem lies in the staging. This is the first time I have seen the show, but my impression is that the action takes place in flashback, with interjections from Bobby's massed friends at the present day birthday party. At least that seemed to be what the production was going for. The trouble was that every time the cast became the chorus, most of them seemed to shed any sense of their individual characters (most of that sense being only skin deep to start with) and merge into a rather bland, generic ensemble. They were not helped at all by choreography which was ineffective at reinforcing relationships between the various characters, and degenerated in Side by Side by Side (the Act II opener) into a generic jazz hands, Producers style wheel number which didn't fit the material at all.
Weaknesses in choreography and direction might have been transcended by strong performances. Only two really stood out – Cassidy Janson's Amy and Greg Castiglioni's Paul. Pretty much alone among this company these two found genuine emotional depth in the scene and song Getting Married Today. This was also a rare occasion when the transition between music and dialogue was seamless and effective. The lead character of Bobby needed much more presence and charisma than Rupert Young possessed. It was rather hard to see from his low key performance why all the women were so attracted to him, and there was little sense of an emotional journey through the piece so that Being Alive fell rather flat at the end. I also felt that his voice was just not quite strong enough for the role, turning thin and strained in crucial places. The rest of the cast tended, apart from the odd flash of character, to a fatal blandness. Delivery of Sondheim's biting lyrics was short of the requisite musical intelligence and point. The worst offender here was Siobhan McCarthy's dreadful rendition of The Ladies who Lunch - words mangled, off-key notes and at top volume simply unpleasant to listen to. I think McCarthy thought she was the second coming of Elaine Stritch – but Stritch for all her flaws has miles more stage presence and punch than McCarthy possesses. Finally, I have to mention the most bizarre element in the whole enterprise which is the presence of Corporal Jones in the company. Actually this is Mark Curry (he of Blue Peter fame) who spends the evening unsuccessfully trying to keep up with the kids (this is of course an aspect of the character but I suspect it's not meant to make him look quite so obviously out of place.)
At first glance the mediocre quality of the performances seems surprising given the length of most of the bios in the programme, but when one looks more closely a number of things become apparent. First, credits for other Sondheim shows are extremely thin on the ground (I counted three, and only one of them noted as being for a main part – the rather different Hysterium in Forum). Second, what musical credits there are seem often to be for understudying roles or standbys – and indeed the performances here have much of the quality of the classic standby – they can do the part but there is a lack of that special something that makes a really great lead. Overall this is a show of fringe quality which might do adequately in Edinburgh but as an off-West End revival falls far short of comparable rivals.