Sondheim's A Little Night Music is a delicate, fragile masterpiece - exquisitely polished and precisely nuanced. It is a show that needs huge skill and understanding of the human condition to be fully successful in the theatre. Is it the right piece for a company of students to undertake? I have my doubts - they simply do not yet have the life experience to really inhabit their roles. However the cast assembled for this brave attempt have talent in abundance and do their best - which in many cases is very good indeed.
The look of the show is sumptuous - with a strong stage design from Anouska Lester and very well-considered costumes. There is some occasional lack of attention to detail - with inappropriate underwear showing through and elements of the set not finished to the standard I am sure they were hoping for - but considering the experience of those involved and the constraints of time and money, this is a handsome piece of stage presentation.
Jonathan Soman is to be congratulated on his work with the orchestra. The level of musical preparation is very high and it is one of the best sounding pit bands I have heard in the Playhouse. On the whole, the vocal preparation is equally solid - there is bags of confidence in the singing. However there are several moments where the pitch does waver - quite painfully on a couple of occasions. Diction is another area where some of the performers could have benefited from additional coaching or support. There is always a balance to be struck between the musical line, characterisation and the lyrics. With Sondheim, the lyrics must always be heard.
The stand-out performance of the production does come, as it should, from Georgina Hellier as Desiree. She has a poise and presence far beyond her years - and whilst she does not fully convince as a woman no longer in her prime, she still presents a strong and engaging interpretation of the character. I also much enjoyed the swagger of Alexander Cvetkovic as Carl-Magnus and the wide-eyed naivety of Ellen Timothy's Anne.
My main concerns with the production lie in the direction. Griffith Rees - one of the most experienced student directors - does bring out some very good performances but as an overall interpretation, I do have reservations. His decision to place Madame Armfelt at the centre of the production is questionable - I cannot find any justification for making her into a mystical manipulator in the text. It feels like a contrivance rather than something that has grown organically out of the musi, lyrics and book.
The other main issue I have is in the use of so much furniture on stage - which necessitates some well-planned but massively over-elaborate set changes. I appreciate that Sondheim wrote a lot of music to allow for scene transitions but the constant moving of screens, chairs, beds, rugs and so forth interrupted the flow of the action rather than leading the audience through the emotional journey of the characters. The furniture placement also constrains the actors at times to such an extent that some key interactions are completely hidden from large parts of the audience.
As with any opening night, you have to forgive a certain lack of precision with the technical elements of the performance. Lighting cues are occasionally missed - but I am sure they won't be during the rest of the run. However there are serious problems in terms of the sound design. With such a large orchestra, it is easy for the singers to be lost in the mix - and this does happen too frequently. Also when dialogue is being underscored, this is also lost on too many occasions. It is a shame when the hard work of all concerned is hampered by something as simple as getting a microphone level right. Again, I hope that this is something that is being worked on for the rest of the performances - but it is something that does need to be addressed.
Student theatre is - and should be - a safe environment in which young performers can learn what works and, more importantly, what doesn't work.
Is this the best production of A Little Night Music you will see? No.
Is this the best production of A Little Night Music that a group of talented Oxford students could hope to achieve at this stage of their careers? Very probably, yes.
It is flawed, it is too long (by at least 15 minutes) but it full of talented people doing some very good work. Hopefully they can take this experience, learn from it, and their next productions (whatever they may be) will be stronger as a result.