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Review Round-up: Nunn’s Music Hits the High Notes

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After his critical flop Gone With the Wind closed prematurely at the New London earlier in the year, Trevor Nunn made his musical comeback at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week (3 December 2008, previews from 22 November) with a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film and written largely in waltz time, A Little Night Music concerns the tangled romantic lives of several couples in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century. The score includes the Grammy Award-winning ballad “Send in the Clowns”.

The principal cast includes I’d Do Anything contestant Jessie Buckley as the naïve teenager Anne, alongside Hannah Waddingham and Alexander Hanson as Desiree and Fredrik, and Maureen Lipman as Madame Armfeldt.

Overnight and weekend reviewers gave Nunn a much easier time than they did at the New London back in April (See Review Round-Up, 23 Apr 2008), celebrating his “exquisite” revival and apt choice of venue – the small Chocolate Factory stage befitting Sondheim’s “intimate ode”. The performances were generally praised, particularly Waddingham (described by one critic as “the Joanna Lumley of music theatre”) and Hanson as the elicit lovers, and Lipman’s “standout” turn as Madame Armfeldt. Jessie Buckley’s Anne didn’t fare quite so well, with Kate Bassett of the Independent on Sunday deeming her a “tiresome little featherbrain”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Trevor Nunn’s chamber-scale revival of this gorgeous 1973 musical … 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’ … 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Everyone knows Sondheim musicals benefit from chamber productions, not least because you can hear all the lyrics. But Trevor Nunn\'s exquisite revival of this 1973 show … exploits the space\'s intimacy to great effect … Songs and situation are perfectly integrated. You see this most clearly in the pivotal relationship between the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, hitched to a young bride, and his old flame Desiree Armfeldt. Their great duet, ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, becomes a riveting mini-play with Alexander Hanson\'s superb Egerman revealing his dotty infatuation with his virginal spouse and Hannah Waddingham\'s sumptuous, Junoesque Desiree ratcheting up her growing rage … The other standout performance is Maureen Lipman\'s Madame Armfeldt. The role can all too easily become a showcase for a display of mittel-Europa sophistication. But Lipman plays her, both truthfully and wittily, as a woman seeking to ward off death through a mix of Proustian memory and aristocratic decorum.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “In London you can wait years for a great musical and then two arrive within 24 hours of each other. Hard upon Carousel comes Trevor Nunn’s dream-struck, elegantly scaled-down production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, that extraordinary words-and-music vision of the games and tricks people play when trying to break into or out of love-relations … David Farley’s set primarily depends upon a bare-room setting, with frosted glass back panels that soon look out onto a silver-birched garden estate. This bare, decluttered staging helps give Nunn’s production its attractive, dreamy impetus … The crucial ‘Send In The Clowns’ finally forces closure: the beautiful pathos of Waddingham’s rendition is limited by her being too young to sing of being ‘so late in my career’. Other qualifications apply to some weakly characterised performances. Never mind. A Little Night Music, with its wonderful music of repressed desire, ranks as a rare, serious delight — obviously West End bound.”
    • Kate Bassett in the Independent on Sunday – “We\'re not talking shoestring budget here. Living up to Sondheim\'s droll lyrics and waltzing operetta-style score, the period costumes and lace parasols are elegant. However, the set has low-tech simplicity: just age-mottled mirrors covering the walls … The Joanna Lumley of musical theatre, Waddingham is a statuesque blonde investing Desirée with wit and warmth. In her duet with Frederik, ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, she slips in her wry asides between the gritted teeth of a polite smile. Hanson portrays Frederik as fundamentally decent, if amorously confused. Meanwhile, Alistair Robins as the bullish Count thrusts bouquets at Desirée as if he\'s drawing pistols … In spite of its fun moments, the evening goes flat. Jessie Buckley\'s Anne is a tiresome little featherbrain, and Waddingham\'s ‘Send in the Clowns’ lacks poignancy because she looks so glam. The bigger problem is that the score grows prolix, especially with the dull number ‘Silly People’ reinstated. A Little Less Night Music would have been better.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (two stars) – “Nunn\'s production, on one of those hermetic sets largely consisting of doors and tarnished mirrors that have become such a cliché in recent years, never penetrates the work\'s subtly erotic heart. And as is often the case with this director\'s work, the pace is so slow and the mood so reverent, that initial enchantment gives way to bored fidgeting … And the casting is downright odd. Hannah Waddingham was a dirty old man\'s dream come true as the fabulously busty Lady of the Lake in Spamalot. But here, in the key role of Desiree, an ageing actress whose simultaneous affairs with two married men powers the plot, she seems totally wrong. This is a woman, like Mrs Patrick Cambell, who is tiring of the hurly burly of the chaise longue and longing for the deep peace of the marital bed … And why Nunn thought it would be possible for us to imagine Maureen Lipman as retired grande horizontale is beyond me.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “The tiny Menier, and the hazy glass panels surrounding a mostly bare stage, suit the composer’s intimate ode to the frustrations of love better than the vast acreage of the Olivier, where the musical last received a major outing. You’re sharing secrets in corners and crannies, not stuck on the receiving end of loudhailers in the park … There’s something about the overall tone that subverts anything upbeat. Minor-key numbers merge into songs, and sometimes patter-songs, which largely consist of wry reverie and ravelled internal debate. Add ruefully sardonic lyrics and wickedly adroit rhymes and you’ve as sharply sophisticated a musical as even Sondheim has written or, indeed, Nunn has staged. That means it’s well worth seeing, despite some uneven acting … Jessie Buckley isn’t quite the eager but nervous 18-year-old Anne needs to be and Alexander Hanson’s Fredrik could be less suave and more frazzled. But Alistair Robins makes a suitably stiff, dim Carl-Magnus and Kaisa Hammarlund, playing the maid Petra, brings terrific verve to a half-dreamy, half-realistic song about marriage.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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