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


Paul Taylor
Thursday 02 May 2013 12:26

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

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in