Trevor Nunn’s superb Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s magical musical A Little Night Music transfers perfectly to the West End’s intimate Garrick Theatre. The cast is virtually the same, the valet’s extraneous song has been wisely cut, the acting generally sharpened.

I have one serious complaint. The microphoning levels are too high, too metallic. After the interval the levels levelled out a bit, but too much damage is inflicted on the limpid, deliquescent music and on Jason Carr’s brilliant orchestrations for a small band of musicians who quite rightly joined the cast on stage for a first night bow.

Why do we have to have any microphoning at all, frankly? Can’t these people sing and speak in a small theatre? We can certainly hear them, I suppose, and hardly a syllable of the exquisite score is swallowed. “Every Day a Little Death” may be taken slower than warranted, but the bonding in marital misery relationship of Kelly Price’s fine Countess and Jessie Buckley’s much improved child bride Anne is beautifully charted.

Similarly, the “Send in the Clowns” scene between Hannah Waddingham’s lustrous, delightfully bitchy Desiree and Alexander Hanson’s definitive, interestingly complex married lawyer Fredrik is a jewel of Chekhovian acting. Waddingham’s delivery of the song, not too drenched in tears, is an exemplary restoration of its dramatic clout as the carapace crumbles.

Maureen Lipman’s Madam Armfeldt comes into clearer focus as a witty wraith at death’s door, though the wig should join Dame Judi’s down the road in Madame de Sade on the bonfire. Sort it, Mo! And Gabriel Vick’s marvellously sung, suicidal Henrik, a seminarian with semen to spare, is a totem of the show’s – and of Ingmar Bergman’s source film, Smiles of a Summer Night - pent-up sensuality and piquant misery.

Alistair Robins is spot-on as the ludicrously chauvinistic Count Carl-Magnus (his duelling duet with Hanson, “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” is a witty highlight) and Kaisa Hammarlund repeats her tumultuous delivery of “The Miller’s Song”.

The company waltzes out of the mist-laden forest where David Farley’s design of glass doors and silver birches accommodates all interiors, and scene changes, with impressive ease and fluency, underpinned by the seductive linking music. The score’s a masterpiece, no question, and this wonderful revival sets the standard for many years to come.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from December 2008 and this production’s original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

The opening is magical. The quintet of choric singers emerges from the mists of memory in a hall of mirrors, spinning to the waltz of a summer night. They whirl away, leaving us with father, son and a virgin bride declaring their respective dilemmas in “Now,” “Later” and “Soon”: immediate seduction, hopeless frustration and excitement on the brink.

Trevor Nunn’s chamber-scale revival of this gorgeous 1973 musical – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (itself derived from a Marivaux play) – allows us almost to eavesdrop on the characters.

The conversational quality of this score, both in this sequence and perhaps especially in the face-off between Desiree Armfeldt’s rival lovers, “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” has never been better realised. Nunn also veers more emphatically towards the Scandinavian angst over the Broadway bitchery. Costumes are black suits and cream silks, with oaten variations.

Desiree the touring actress is played with willowy flightiness by Hannah Waddingham, toying with the affections of both Alexander Hanson’s superb Fredrik (revealing the subtlety of the role as well as its vanity) and Alistair Robins’ unreasonable Count until she realises where her true heart lies – in the sad confusion of “Send in the Clowns.”

That late addition to the score is its masterpiece, despite years of hackneyed reproduction, whereas the new song “Silly People” (only ever heard on the concert platform before) slows down the second act and adds nothing new. The only fault of Nunn’s meticulous, often obsessively Chekhovian direction, is the odd loss of pace, often in scenes with Jessie Buckley’s underpowered, gauchely acted teenage bride Anne.

The bite is restored first by Maureen Lipman as the old chatelaine Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, who plays the comic Lady Bracknell side of the role at the expense of its European grandeur, and secondly by Kelly Price as the Count’s vengefully plotting wife. The National’s 1995 revival by Sean Mathias was too soft and languid a spectacle; this has all the bittersweet melancholy and mordancy of Bergman with a top skin of Woody Allen.

The Menier treatment is becoming as distinctive as a Donmar Warehouse brand. David Farley’s design is simple and brilliant, the mirrored panels opening onto a forest of silver birches, lit to perfection by Hartley T A Kemp. And Jason Carr does another remarkable job in reducing a rich score to its orchestral minimum (six musicians) without losing an ounce of impact or flavour. A little chamber night music is just the job.

- Michael Coveney