Double Take: Reviews: A Little Night Music

Olivier, London Our theatre critic Paul Taylor and music critic Edward Seckerson assess the drama and music of the National's Sondheim revival

Sean Mathias's sublime Olivier staging of A Little Night Music restores one of the songs dropped from previous productions. Entitled "My Husband the Pig", it's performed by Patricia Hodge's drop-dead elegantly distraught Charlotte. She's just been ordered by her swaggering dragoon of a spouse to lend him a hand with his mistress problem by reporting on the other married man who is trying to muscle our hero out of his extra- marital bed. Could any self-respecting woman bring herself to love such a bastard? Well, yes. "I worship the ground/ That he kicks me around/ On, the pig," she sings.

Very Sondheim, that, the pithiness with which she can pin down her perversity and still not scotch it and a welcome addition to the many memorable ways the characters in this piece lay bare the humiliating habits of the human heart. In his Diaries, Peter Hall recalls going to see the 1975 premiere and declares Night Music a dispiriting example of how musicals patronise their audiences. I must say that I don't feel patronised by a show in which a middle-aged lawyer, racked with sexual frustration by his young virgin wife of 11 months, can come to the climax of a song of unspoken yearning and make the following comically hapless and honest discrimination: "Now, I still want and/ or love you... " That sort of truth is not much heard in the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A visit now to his old stamping ground would quickly disabuse Sir Peter of his benighted notion. For three hours of gloriously barbed bliss and bewitchment, Sean Mathias's production establishes the show as a minor miracle of astringent worldly wisdom and one that is haunted by less earthy intimations. From the moment the whole cast mills over the revolve, each of them driven forward in a solitary waltz-step, you get a faint eerie sense that something other than human will is in control and a feeling of galleried voyeurism that is heightened by the splendidly knowing line- up of Liebeslieder waltzers who act as observer-chorus to the action.

The heart of the production, in both senses, is Judi Dench's superb Desiree Armfeldt. It's the second time in a year that she has played a grand, bad actress in the Olivier. The difference between Desiree and Chekhov's Arkadina, though, is that the latter lives in a fortress of illusion, whereas the enduring quality of Sondheim's all-too-experienced heroine, which Dench conveys beautifully, is the wry self-mockery and the feisty, stubborn hope that has not been soured by playing a hundredth Hedda in some provincial dump. Her husky-voiced rendering of "Send in the Clowns" is the most moving I've ever heard.

Playing Dench's ancient Norn-courtesan of a mother, Sian Phillips looks as though she has stepped out of a painting by Munch. Calling for a toast in a special dessert wine "that is said to possess the power to open the eyes of even the blindest among us...", she adds to the impression that that unsettlingly suspended Scandinavian night in Act 2 has its affinities with A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as Chekhov. With wonderful use of scrim and revolve and the Olivier's vast distances, Mathias's excellently acted production gives you a haunting sense of its mysterious enchantments. PT

It's still the only musical I know to begin with a vocal warm- up. Atmospheric, and necessary. Sondheim's relationship with voices was always, to say the least, ambivalent. There are moments in this fascinating and lovely score which border on the unsingable - deliberately so in the case of Henrik Egerman's tortured soliloquy "Later" (high Bs impossibly placed). But that trinity of numbers ("Now", "Later", "Soon") is a very tall order indeed. Perhaps Sondheim really is an instrumental composer who happens to write musical comedy (I've no doubt he'd love to have been Ravel - Jonathan Tunick's elegant and piquant orchestrations keep promising us the "Fairy Garden" from Ma Mere l'Oye).

But let's not get too hung up on how strong Sean Mathias's production is vocally. In an ideal world we'd have a Henrik as good as Brendan O'Hea but with a ringing high tenor truly to crown the climax of "A Weekend in the Country"; we'd have a Petra as engaging as Issy van Randwyck with the dead-centred belt-voice that "The Miller's Son" demands but that she lacks. In an ideal world...

But when the book is as good as Hugh Wheeler's, it's amazing how playing it for real, for truth, how treating it as a serious play with songs carries all before it. That's the real strength of this revival. Judi Dench in "Send in the Clowns" (heart-breakingly cynical) feels definitive; and Patricia Hodge's involvement with the lyric of "Every Day a Little Death" supports and enriches her wavering line. The ravishing middle-eight (or is it middle-sixteen?) of that number is a priceless example of Sondheim at his most tantalisingly transient. You crave the reprise but he leaves you feeling hungry.

As ever, the wide, open spaces of the Olivier stage are a bit of a mixed blessing. Intimacy is a challenge. "A Weekend in the Country", one of the great ensembles of musical comedy, is too diffuse - no impact, no uplift until its final chord. Was it Sondheim's idea to slip in the horn call from Der Rosenkavalier just before the close - a wink and a nod to Straussian decadence in a score that absorbs so completely the character, the manners of the period it embraces and then subverts them so deliciously. ES

n In rep at the RNT. Booking: 0171-928 2252

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