Regular readers will know that I am a Sondheim aficionado. It may therefore come as something of a shock when I say that this is the only Sondheim show I have so far seen (unseen to date are Company and Pacific Overtures) which has not worked.
First off it is only fair to say that neither the production nor the company can be faulted. Both make the best possible claim that can be made of this show, Sondheim's last major work (Road Show, formerly Bounce having apparently been workshopped to death). Granted I did at times wonder if Fosca is meant to sound so much like Edith Piaf, but this may have been a consequence of having read Elena Roger's bio before the show started. As in other productions at the Donmar, the show makes a virtue of the limited space and successfully conjures up railway stations, sun-drenched rooms, grim provincial military outposts. The evocative lighting and clever painting of the back wall reminded me of the superb production of The Chalk Garden.
Of the three leads Scarlett Strallen and David Birrell give particularly good performances. Strallen benefits from having the most internally convincing character to work with. The supporting cast, mostly playing members of the military garrison, are all nicely characterised and Ross Dawes and Tim Morgan have brilliant little cameos as Fosca's parents.
So why given the talents of all these people does this show just not quite work. One problem is clearly the score which meanders on at very much the same level for the duration. There is a considerable echo of the sound world of Sunday in the Park with George, particularly when these protagonists start singing about light, but I also thought I caught shades of “Losing my Mind” from Follies. However, the problem is more complex than this. A lot of the time there doesn't seem to me to be any particular reason for these characters to express themselves in song – it doesn't expand them. In every other Sondheim show, and in the best musicals, that musical expression acts as a key dimension of the characterisation – they have to express themselves in that way. This just doesn't seem to me to be the case to the same degree here. Then we come to the lyrics. There is something almost generic about some of these – most starkly revealed when the phrase “just another love story” wafts out towards the conclusion. The rhyming schemes, another characteristic Sondheim feature which again usually seems to emerge more naturally from number after number here feels forced too, almost a habit, an echo of something that in other places is so much more biting, moving, effective. And finally there's the story. Much of the narrative is developed through the protagonists' letters to one another. To keep up the necessary emotional pitch when people are not actually directly in contact is always difficult to bring off, and I kept being reminded of David Lodge's comment in Changing Places, referenced in the title of this review. There is also something that doesn't quite work in terms of the actual story. At a number of points I felt that characters behaved in certain ways (for example the Doctor persuading Bachetti to visit Fosca) for reasons of plot requirements and not because it was actually consistent with convincing characterisation. This also applied to Bachetti falling for Fosca – there was something so demonic about her that it just didn't convince me that he wouldn't have run a mile had the exigencies of the plot not required his behavior to be otherwise. Ultimately, this show failed for me, ironically and uniquely among all of Sondheim's shows, on the level of emotional engagement. The programme note made the usual comments on Sondheim's reputation for coldness, going on to argue that this is the least “cold” of Sondheim's scores. I fear I have to disagree. I don't think any of Sondheim's shows have left me more emotionally cold than this. Compare the savage misery of Sweeney Todd when he discovers he has killed his wife, George's desperate fear of the loss of his creative talent, the heartbroken Baker, Franklin Shepherd's terrible line “You're the kind of girl I ought to marry” when we know he doesn't, I could find an example from every single one of Sondheim's shows that I have seen – all of them packing far more emotional punch than this rather thin little story. And in all those cases the punch comes from the successful trifecta of book, music and lyrics. The trouble here is that all those elements are operating below par.
I am glad to have seen this production, and to have experienced the show, and I highly commend performers and production team. But if I were ranking Sondheim shows deserving of a better critical reputation and more regular performance I would put both Anyone can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along well ahead of this.
Postscript: Despite the ticketing website claiming "Limited Availability - Please contact Box Office" both concert performances of Merrily We Roll Along are apparently completely sold out. If anyone can put me legally in the way of a ticket, for which I will of course (as is our policy on this website) pay, I should be delighted to hear from you (contact details on the right hand side of the page).