Spry, crisp and dry

MUSICAL: Marry Me a Little Bridewell, London
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The Independent Culture
As Clive Carter channel-hops through a night's TV he accidentally alights upon the theme tune from Friends. One scowl later, it's off. Single and alone on a Saturday night, the last thing he wants is an image of carefree companionship.

Clive Paget's smart production of Marry Me a Little is filled with similarly witty pieces of observation which sharpen up this compilation of early Sondheim songs that never made the grade. Fortunately, anyone expecting a sung catalogue of duds and disasters - a musical version of It'll Be Alright on the Night - will be disappointed. Faced with an intriguing collection of trunk songs, Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, the show's creators, abandoned the arch "perch on a chrome and black leather stool and chat about the material" routine, and came up with an altogether neater conceit. The result is a short evening dovetailing the fantasies and realities of an unnamed man and woman who spend an ordinary evening in their separate apartments dreaming of the perils and pleasures of dating and mating.

Putting it together is, of course, the problem. How do you unify such material composed over 20 years? Sondheim himself tried a similar trick when he revamped Follies, inserting new material into a show he had written 15 years earlier. His new songs were (mostly) tart and terrific but they leapt out of the texture. The surprise here is that despite a wide mixture of styles, there is a remarkable unity of tone: hope tempered by sardonic humour, romanticism undercut by sly wit.

A double-edged quality is strongly to the fore, not least in the duets. Some of the numbers are less equivocal than they appear. "Can That Boy Foxtrot" (cut from the original Follies) might be thought to be in praise of the hero's terpsichorean talent but watching Rebecca Front fondle a courgette singing "He may be full of hokum/ But I've no complaint/ He often is a bore/ But on the floor he ain't..." persuades you otherwise.

If Sondheim's outtakes are actually more interesting than other people's hits it's often because they are rooted in character and situation. Many were dropped not because they were bad, but because they didn't fit the dramatic structures that surrounded them. The title song, originally from Company but judged too knowing, was deemed good enough for the recent off-Broadway and West End revivals. Strangely, Front sings this all out in contradiction to the lyric, which constantly speaks of withholding. The song, with its almost unsingably wide range, also exposes her vocal limitations. Her light voice is much better suited to the sultry, snake- hipped "The Girls of Summer".

Carter, too, is slightly off-centre at times. He's got the bite for the tough bitterness of "Happily Ever After" and cavorts splendidly across the sofa in "Bang!", the first attempt at the Count's song from A Little Night Music, but he's so robust that on occasion he overpowers both lyrics and his partner.

The show is never going to be the last word in dramatic depth, and occasionally the choreography compounds the felony by falling back on mere lyric illustration when it could be expressing emotion, but this enjoyably crisp, sophisticated production is surprisingly sharp. The passion-filled silence at the end of the hard-bitten "All Things Bright and Beautiful" proves that these songs can and do thrive in their newfound context.

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