Theatre review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

It's getting to be a habit for the Menier Chocolate Factory to transfer their acclaimed Sondheim revivals from the quirky intimacy of their own venue to the big bad world of the West End.

They did it with Sunday in the Park with George and with A Little Night Music. And now there's the same trajectory for this superlative staging of Merrily We Roll Along. It is, make no mistake, one of the great musical productions of this or any other era and it's all the more astonishing (even though, as singer/actress she is is one of Sondheim's foremost interpreters) in that it marks the directing debut of Maria Friedman.   

She brings to the table a blazing inwardness with the material. Above all, this revival lays out - with a more biting (yet compassionate) clarity than any I have seen hitherto -  the tricky narrative and emotional logic of an anti-clockwise story that follows three friends (a male composer/lyricist duo and their female writer-friend) as they travel backwards in the time from the cynicism of a corrupt trashy drinks party in Hollywood in the mid-1970s to (eventually) a New York City rooftop in 1957 and a tingling sense of limitless youthful possibility on the night that Sputnik was sighted.

The leading trio (Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley) give acting and singing performances that are now extraordinarily rich in texture, subtext and truthfulness through every beat of the drama. It's often said that Franklin Shepard, the composer who sells out, is too unattractive a protagonist to hold an audience's emotional interest. But Umbers takes you right inside his troubled nervous system and Russell and Humbley show how their laudable expectations of their friend are perhaps suffocatingly idealistic and burdensome, especially in the pivotal scene in 1968 in Frank's NYC apartment where, as superbly performed in this production, it's the well-meaning but counterproductive pressure on him more than any personal shittiness that seems to account for his switch of allegiance to Josefina Gabrielle's subtly angled Broadway diva Gussie.

The chorus establish period and guide us though the reverse storyline with terrifically droll/baleful attack and a hard-etched caricature-precision and the ace band do electric justice to a mordant and aching score in which the main song, in keeping with the chronology, is first heard as a wispy quotation from a real-life Frank Sinatra cover version and then gradually exfoliates from reprise to full-bodied version to honky-tonk early sketches. The show is a rare combination of the thoughtful and the thrilling. Go.

To 27 July; 0844 871 7627