Surely Stephen Sondheim was being a touch disingenuous when he claimed that he had no idea that Company would be “unsettling”. Admittedly, when it was first staged in 1970, post-Hair, musical comedies didn’t have to be warm-hearted narratives like The Sound of Music, but the non-linear arrangement of inter-disconnected stories makes it still a most original and surprising period piece.
Robert, a New Yorker with a deep-seated aversion to commitment, is celebrating his 35th birthday. After news of a planned surprise party his life is revealed to him (and us) via scenes with five couples, friends of his, and three girlfriends to whom he is less than committed. In the first half he is often the third party, a negative catalyst, in the scenes with his friends; in the second half his problems (if he has any problems) move centre stage.
Apart from Robert, the various characters have their big numbers, their big scenes, then merge into the ensemble. In Jonathan Munby’s superb production for Sheffield Crucible, casting from strength makes for an outstanding company.
Many of the musical numbers are mini-dramas in themselves, George Furth’s clever and economical book and Sondheim’s oblique lyrics merging perfectly. So, for instance, “Another Hundred People”, delivered with terrific pizazz by Rosalie Craig as one of the girlfriends, is punctuated by typically funny/poignant scenes with all three. “Getting Married Today” finds Samantha Spiro performing vocal gymnastics on a patter song while the equally excellent Anna-Jane Casey leads the choir in a saccharine distortion of a wedding hymn and Jeremy Finch (Paul) fails to understand how off-putting kindness and gentleness can be.
The great individual set-pieces are given full value by Francesca Annis and Daniel Evans. Wonderfully sardonic in “The Little Things You Do Together”, she attacks “The Ladies Who Lunch” with vodka-fuelled survivalism, overall a sort of desperate mix of Edith Piaf and Dorothy Parker. As Robert, Evans never puts a foot wrong (literally, in a highly impressive singing and dancing performance), but above all characterises vividly someone who has no discernible character.
Nigel Lilley (in charge of a proper ten-piece band) and Lynne Page (with inventive and precise choreography) add much to a memorable performance, and Christopher Oram’s design sets the tone even before the show starts. Looking at that New York loft, hefty industrial structure contrasting with smart 70s furnishings, the Manhattan sky-line revealed through wall-wide windows, you know you’re in for a treat of smart and worldly New Yorkery.