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Sondheim's Old Friends review – the shivering sense of seeing musical history embodied

Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton and more starred in the concert event

The assembled company on stage
© Danny Kaan

In the end, they all stood on the stage under golden lights, linking arms, and watching the young singers from drama schools who formed the choir singing "Our Time", the great hopeful anthem from Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. There they all were: Bernadette Peters, Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton, Michael Ball, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman among them. Men and women whose lives had been transformed by their performances of work by this master composer and lyricist and who in turn had illuminated the lives of those sitting in the audience, who adored him too.

You could touch the emotion at this gala celebration of Sondheim, held to celebrate his achievements before his death last year at the age of 91, and to raise money for his foundation which will support the talent of young composers of the future. The people on stage had lost a friend; the people watching them felt they had lost one.

It was a celebration staged with love by Friedman and Matthew Bourne, whose clever sense of the dramatic was evident in the way that rather than just being a succession of greatest hits, the songs were grouped together in a staging that although simple was also fluent and theatrical.

There were some very classy routines, choreographed by Stephen Mear with flair and sophisticated attention to detail: Damian Lewis, Rob Brydon, Julian Ovenden and the wonderful Siân Phillips, flicking their wrists and soft stepping across the stage in "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" or Janie Dee, Anna-Jane Casey and Josefina Gabrielle shimmering like a 60s girl band in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy".

Haydn Gwynne and Rob Brydon
© Danny Kaan

But in the end, inevitably, it was individuals and moments that brought the house down. Julia McKenzie who did so much to introduce Sondheim to British audiences as part of Side by Side with Sondheim, which was certainly how I first began to know his iridescent songs, could barely get on the stage for the applause. Judi Dench stepped on in darkness to avoid the same problem, but still the rapture was overwhelming; to hear her utter the line "Sorry, my dear" in "Send in The Clowns", was a masterclass in expressing feeling in three words.

The precision of Sondheim's writing was everywhere on display, performed by people who understand the importance of leaning into his language. Bernadette Peters was, for me, the star of the night, the depth of her empathy with Sondheim's work everywhere obvious. She made a wonderful entrance, concealed under a red cape, before singing a version of "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods, that made every line a revelation; her subsequent duet with Lewis as a very bad wolf in "Hello Little Girl" was a comic, sexy joy.

At 74, Peters is no longer the singer she once was, but she uses her voice and her presence immaculately; her version of "Losing My Mind" from Follies was heart-breaking, her timing as the strumpet with a trumpet in "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" was perfect. When she simply stands on stage in Dot's dress in "Sunday", the finale of Sunday in the Park with George, you have the shivering sense of seeing musical history embodied.

Other highlights for me included Petula Clark (a mere 89) in an expressive and beautifully phrased version of "I'm Still Here" and a fabulous long run of songs from Sweeney Todd which included not only the piercing factory whistle, but also Michael Ball and Maria Friedman in both "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest". Haydn Gwynne belted out "The Ladies Who Lunch", Dee charmed in "The Boy From..." and Imelda Staunton brought all the ferocity of her performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy to "Coming Up Roses". I also loved Ovenden and Michael D Xavier as the disreputable Princes complaining about women in "Agony". The orchestra, high above the stage under conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo, played magnificently throughout.

With my critic's hat on, I could possibly complain that some contributors (Jenna Russell, Daniel Evans, Clive Rowe, Rosalie Craig) were under-used, that as producer Cameron Mackintosh was slightly too central (the film of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sondheim joining at the piano to praise him was fun but oddly out of place), and that the energy in the second half slightly dipped as massed tribute followed tribute.

But with my Sondheim lover's hat on, I was just so glad to be there. It was a night to remember, a warm and wonderful riffling through the back catalogue of someone whose astonishing variety and constant exploration changed musical theatre forever – and will, thanks to the legacy of his foundation, go on inspiring future generations.

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