Trevor Nunn directed the first production in the cavernous Prince of Wales back in 1989 and returns to the piece now in the intimate Menier with a production that is as persuasively ravishing as his recent work there on A Little Night Music, a similarly Mozartian construct of love and mis-directed passion.
There is no librettist: David Garnett’s 1955 novella is slightly tinkered with (the action here stretches from 1947 to 1964) but simply translated to the stage in raw, bleeding chunks of bohemian sexuality and bad behaviour. The work of a dramatic structure is done by the music.
Alex (Michael Arden), an Englishman abroad, falls in love with a blonde French actress, Rose Vibert (Katherine Kingsley), who then falls in love with Alex’s uncle, the painter George Dillingham (Dave Willetts), whose Italian sculptress lover, Giulietta Trapani (Rosalie Craig), seduces Alex. Oh, and Alex dallies in a hayloft with the teenage daughter, Jenny, of George and Rose… at George’s funeral.
The details of all this are less important than the hothouse temperature of the score, which is rich, lush, subtle and complex, using recurring motifs from the big songs - “Love Changes Everything,” “Seeing is Believing” and “Other Pleasures” - in an overall skein and texture of emotional commitment and crisis.
Nunn’s production - beautifully designed by David Farley against a Provencal beige background of panelling, doors and picture frames, with glimpses of the Pyrenees beyond - manages fully to elide the recitative and the musical numbers so that the whole performance is, as it were, organically “breathed” by the cast, and indeed, the seven-piece band.
Always conceived as a chamber musical, the revival seems like a recreation, with virtually flawless acting throughout. The American actor Michael Arden, making a London debut, is a revelation, far drier and less bumptious than Michael Ball, who was terrific in the original.
And Katherine Kingsley comes fully into her kingdom with the tremendous, valedictory “Anything But Lonely,” as remarkable a number as the dashing cross-rhythmed tango “The Wine and the Dice,” or the catchy, insidious “Parlez Vous Francais?” of the first act.
Above all, and paradoxically in a show about individual indulgence, the ensemble’s the thing, and the production is fully integrated with the choreography of Lynne Page, the seductively minimalist new orchestrations by David Cullen, and the impeccable lighting of Paul Pyant: it’s a glinting gem of an evening.