Moving in very good Company
Sunday 17 March 1996
The current hit production of Stephen Sondheim's Company transferred this week from a little theatre to a big one. It's 24 years since its first London production. If there isn't a sizeable audience for this supremely astute musical comedy, beyond the 23,850 people who saw it at the Donmar, then we might as well leave the West End to ageing blockbusters. Six and a half million people have seen the London production of Starlight Express. It's 12 years old this month, and it's terrible.
Company's producer, Bill Kenwright, has enough favourable quotes to plaster every passing doubledecker. "Glittering." "Magnificent." "Unforgettable." "Triumphant." "Superb." Not to mention the awards. Best Supporting Performance. Best Actor. Best Director. Best Musical. Critically speaking, the only question hanging over the transfer of Company is not how good it is (it is good - very, very good), but whether its intimate staging would survive the move from the 250-seat Donmar to the 875-seat Albery?
Company takes a series of sketches on the theme of modern urban marriage and threads through it the personal dilemma of a 35-year-old, unattached, uncommitted man. It is dark, sharp and hilarious. The persistent and riveting note it strikes - embodied in the title of "Sorry-Grateful" - is one of strong ambivalence. In marriage, nothing is black or white, it's in-between. Unlike John Major, Sondheim makes greyness a smart state to be in.
Seeing Sam Mendes' production of Company for a second time, the show looks bigger, subtler and more complex than it did three months ago. The Manhattan friends here know each other more intimately. Little bits of business - the joshing, the larking around - hint at long-established friendships and tensions. The proscenium stage, too, suits Company better than the three-sided Donmar. It gives the actors space to open out, and gives us a perspective.
Company presents itself as an ensemble piece, and this one contains outstanding performances: Clive Rowe as the genially deceptive, roly-poly husband, Harry, swigging at the brandy when his wife isn't looking; Liza Sadovy, as the conventional Jenny, getting stoned and saying rude words (which she never normally does); Sheila Gish, in magnificent form as the blonde soak, Joanne, growling out "Ladies Who Lunch" with a withering fury. As the neurotic Catholic, Sophie Thompson - a fretful, stooping figure scuttling round, barking at her amiable Jewish fiance (Michael Simkins) - manages to be absurd and touching. She steals the limelight back from her elder sister, Emma.
But although it's an ensemble, Company hinges on the central character, Bobby. Adrian Lester is a mesmerising performer who manages to cast his spell in a largely passive role. It would be easy to be a blank page, but Lester fills his character with enough psychological interest to power the hero of a novel. He has the ability to make looking anxious, attentive and quizzical as arresting as whatever situation it is that he is anxious, tentative or quizzical about. I imagine a Twenties matinee idol would have this ease, this watchability. He must be studying Zen.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a terrific new play (and a first play, too) by 25-year-old Mar- tin McDonagh. It is set in the kitchen/living room of a cottage in County Galway. Leenane is the sort of town where, as one character remarks, if you kick a cow someone holds a grudge for the next 20 years. Character and setting dominate Beauty Queen, giving the events a compulsive, frightening inevitability.
Maureen (Marie Mullen), now in her early forties, still lives with her shrewdly tyrannical mother (Anna Manahan), who drags her down with constant petty demands. When the chance occurs for another life - in the shape of the hesitant, sincere Pato (Bran F O'Byrne) - the old mother moves to end the affair with savage speed. Beauty Queen is rooted in the specifics of an isolated, inward- looking culture. It is funny, horrifying and closely observed. The comic discussions over how to stir the Complan, which biscuits to buy, or what's on the radio, never become self-indulgent because, among his talents as a dramatist, McDonagh has a Hitchcockian taste for suspense.
Scene after scene - bringing the boyfriend back, breakfast the next morning, sending a letter - sticks forcefully in the mind. Though simple in themselves they leave you in no doubt that people are fighting for their lives. The cast is excellent: as the careless younger brother, wanting to get home so that he can watch soaps on TV, Tom Murphy provides a very funny antidote to the seething hatreds elsewhere. Garry Hynes directs this compelling debut.
The disappointment of the week was Foe, a co-production between Theatre de Complicite and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. In the programme, the idea of adapting J M Coetzee's novel is credited to Annabel Arden, a Complicite director, who neither directs or appears in Foe. She is well out of it. Coetzee's novel takes Robinson Crusoe and asks: which story do you tell? There is Crusoe's, there is Friday's (though he's had his tongue cut out), and in Foe there is the narrator Susan Barton (Kathryn Hunter). She is shipwrecked on the island for the year and becomes, in effect, Mrs Crusoe. When she gives her account to Daniel Defoe he has his own ideas, too. A story about storytelling, Foe is an absorbing subject for a novel and a lousy one for a play.
An early warning about the unsuitability of the material comes with the first speech. It's a voiceover. Sure enough, the sound system (sound: Mic Poole) plays a major role, giving us waves, thunder, howling wind and squawking birds. When we get to the acting, it's often first-person narration. Mark Wheatley's adaptation feels like illustrated chunks of the novel. "I climbed the staircase, it was a tall house ... " we are told, or "Crusoe came down with fever again ... " We don't get to know the characters' situations through developing scenes. We watch them having a far more intense time than we are. As Susan Barton, the forceful Kathryn Hunter has a vast part, but never establishes a rapport with the audience. The mystery is why a company that has pioneered visual, physical and expressive theatre in this country should choose something better suited to Radio 4.
The dancer and choreographer Nigel Charnock has set up his own company (in which he doesn't appear) and written and directed a new show, Watch My Lips, which takes a jokey, explicit look at sexuality and its discontents (whether straight, gay or bi). Charnock writes likes a choreographer: the scenes resemble numbers, with arguments and monologues replacing duets and solos. It's highly energetic, candid and in-yer-face. The irrepressible cast of four go about as far as you can while still staying the funny side of brazen.
`Company': Albery, WC2 (0171 369 1730). `The Beauty Queen of Leenane': Royal Court, SW1 (0171 730 2554), to Sat. `Foe': Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113 244 2111), to 30 Mar. `Watch My Lips': Drill Hall, WC1 (0171 637 8270) to 6 Apr.
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