Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 waltz musical is based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and as Trevor Nunn has already directed Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage on the stage this year, he’s in the mood for a piece the composer described as whipped cream with knives. His intimate revival comes out of the mirrored mists of a country house estate where memories are rife and the moon smiles three times: for the young, the foolish and the old.
The sinuous, bittersweet score is Sondheim’s Rosenkavalier full of trios and duets, Mozartian grace notes in a storyline full of mishaps and mistresses, syncopated rhythms and of course “Send in the Clowns”, that 11 o’clock number (and it was not far short of that hour on opening night) sung by Desiree Armfeldt, the touring actress, to her old flame the married lawyer Fredrick Egerman. In the past, Jean Simmons and Judi Dench have delivered it in an identical red dress as a defiant sob story. Here, the languorous, tall Hannah Waddingham allows the song through her baffled and defeated defences.
It’s much more effective that way, especially when countered with Alexander Hanson’s superb, deflated Fredrik, who has been unable to cope with his impetuous second marriage to a virgin teenager, Anne. In this role, Jessie Buckley compensates for inexperience with blushing girlishness, finding her right emotional level with Fredrik’s troubled, cello-playing son Henrik (Gabriel Vick) whom she discovers at the wrong end of a rope in the garden after dinner.
The structure has two levels of supervision. First, the choric quintet who drift in and out and supply the reflective tone and social momentum in items like “Remember” and the spring-heeled catchiness of “A Weekend in the Country”. Then there is Desiree’s old mother, Madame Armfeldt, a strong-willed chatelaine who has slept with most European heads of state and acquired as much experience as vintage champage.
Usually, this wheelchair-bound old trout is played with mittel-European inflection, but Maureen Lipman scrubs it all down and finds Lady Bracknell lurking. Lines that were never funny shine like gems, fair reward for losing the mildewed grandeur of Hermione Gingold (the first Mme Armfeldt in Lodnon in 1975) or Lila Kedrova in the Chichester revival of 1989. She is less successful with the nostalgic “Liaisons” (what happened to them?)
The music is brilliantly arranged for a tiny band by Jason Carr, and David Farley’s design is a cream conservatory with opening doors and a vista of silver birches in the second act. The lighting of Hartley T A Kemp plays its part, too, in evoking the steam and sultriness of the woodland retreat where only the valet and the sexually active
maid Petra are honest to their desires. The first is given a new song “Silly People” that doesn’t really earn its keep, but Petra’s “The Miller’s Son”, glowingly sung by Kaisa Hammerlund, sets up the finale of resolution and death with great flourish.
This is another small-scale triumph for the Menier. And you begin to wonder what Nunn might have achieved with something like Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, had he gone down this route with musical theatre a little earlier.