Thursday, 31 January 2008

Merrily We Roll Along - Watermill Theatre

Merrily We Roll Along
Watermill Theatre - 16th Jan - 8th Mar
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondhiem
Book By George Furth
Directed by John Doyle

Reviewed by Damian Sandys

Ever since Press Night, I have been at somewhat of a loss as to what exactly I wanted to say in this review. I had high expectations for the show: I was already familiar with the piece, loved the music, and this was an opportunity to see the legendary John Doyle at work, following his Tony Award-winning production of Sweeney Todd.

Yet I have my reservations about this new production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Whilst it was a perfectly enjoyable evening, there is something about this production that just did not quite work for me. When it came to analysing exactly what this “something” was, however, I disappeared into perennial circles, unable to totally settle upon the production or the piece itself.

Merrily is a strange beast of a show. Based on the play of the same title by George Kauffman and Moss Hart, the musical tells of the disintegration of the friendship between successful songwriter Franklin Shepard, his lyricist Charlie Kringras, and novelist Mary Flynn. The action takes place between 1957 and 1980; yet crucially the action is unfolded in reverse. As the play begins, tensions and feuds take centre stage, and it becomes apparent that the materialistic Frank is no longer on speaking terms with Charlie, whilst Mary is an outspoken alcoholic; in contrast, the final scene shows their first meeting upon a roof during an eclipse, full of youthful optimism, an abundance of goodwill and a shared future.

It is a daring and innovative construction to tell the story backwards; the emphasis immediately switches from what happened to why it happened, and Sondheim and Furth have provided a wealth of intelligent echoes and refrains to underline the changes of fortune and attitudes of the characters. Yet the very nature of this clever and imaginative structure brings a major problem in terms of actual performance: By beginning at the end of the story, the characters have all turned into bitter, depressed and cynical creatures; a fact that makes it difficult - not impossible, but difficult - for an audience member to care sufficiently about them.

This is a big hurdle to climb during the opening scene, especially so as this talented and versatile cast have to additionally cope with playing all the instruments and singing. Sam Kenyon’s Frank takes centre stage for most of the production, seated at a magnificent grand piano, the focus of Liz Ascroft’s stark, but beautifully evocative set. This perfectly underpins his character as a composer, yet, curiously, he is seated facing upstage, away from the audience, which only serves to alienate the audience from Frank, particularly so as Kenyon’s portrayal is lacking in the charm and charisma necessary for us to invest in the central character. Elizabeth Marsh’s Mary is the saving grace for the opening, providing humour with her biting, acerbic observations and a steely focus emerging from her elegant frame.

The rest of the cast rarely leave the stage, and are assembled in rows, only moving out of position to deliver lines and briefly partake in the action. Instead the movement is provided by the spools of magnetic tape whirring round on the back wall, and then pulled along by the cast members during scenes. Artistically, the idea is a good one, highlighting the production’s interpretation of the story as the unfolding of Frank’s memories. In practice, however, it becomes rather a stagnant visual picture; think more concert performance than a visual spectacle. The truly beautiful moments of the production come when this static approach breaks; the short scene where Frank, Beth, Mary and Charley are assembled around the piano packs more of an emotional punch than anything else as, for almost the first time, the actors are free to act and tell the story free of other constraints.

It must be understood that the cast are phenomenally talented people; Sondheim’s music is notably hard and these actors play up to four instruments onstage each, often swapping between them seamlessly. Yet this is a big demand to lay upon an actor, and restricts heavily upon the casting pool available. In casting these parts, musicality must have been one of the major concerns, resulting in some actors being a little out of their depth. Whilst none of the acting could be described as mediocre, there were times when I was left wishing for a little more of an emotional range or depth of character. Joanna Hickman is the knockout performance as Frank’s first wife, Beth. Her transformation from bitter divorcee to na├»ve, fresh faced youth is the most convincing and also most apparent. Rebecca Jackson also tackles the manipulative Gussie with much gusto and helps propel the story along with more emotional impact than before. The male characters do not fare quite as well, with a lot of humour and meaning lost between the lines.

It seems to me that both the production and the piece are made up of some intelligent, thoughtful and bold ideas on paper, yet they all meet with some difficulty when in comes to applying them through performance. As mentioned already, the set is beautifully evocative with the back wall resembling a large piece of manuscript paper, fading in sepia tones. When the characters stand directly in front of this, their costumes blend them in, allowing us to view them as the ghosts or shadows from the past. Again, a brilliant idea – but when the actors are still directly involved in the scene and contributing lines, the audibility decreases and another layer of stillness is added to an already static scene.

I certainly enjoyed the evening, and have thought about it several times since, yet it is remarkably telling that, come the time of writing this review, it is the music that lingers and not the performances.

Photos top: - Sam Kenyon & Michelle Long. Bottom:- Rebecca Jackson

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