Unusually, this year's winner of the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Outstanding Newcomer is not a person but a venue, the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark. And the day after collecting this accolade, its producers opened a show which demonstrates why it is so deserved. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical centring on Georges Seurat and his pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte received its UK première (and its only London production hitherto) in the National's big Lyttelton Theatre in 1990. You would not expect a 160-seat studio to accommodate a musical with a cast of almost twenty and, more to the point, one which requires such visual playfulness. But Sam Buntrock, an accomplished director of animation as well as stage work, has largely dispensed with trucking scenery in and out; he opts instead for animated projections across a white back wall and smaller screens further forward, on which characters and landscape appear and disappear, or transform from flesh into dots of light (which was Seurat's aim in adopting his painting technique).
The visuals (with projection design by Timothy Bird) are breathtaking. Which is a good thing, as this isn't otherwise one of Sondheim's more ravishing musicals. In Act One, George's obsession with his art leads to the loss of his model and lover Dot (geddit?), and Sondheim's score mimics Seurat's style: points and snatches of melody, merging at a greater distance (in Jason Carr's orchestrations for five-piece band) into vague, bubbling cauldrons of sound. Act Two sounds more like familiar Sondheim; however, its plot of a 1980s descendant of Seurat suffering a crisis of motivation amid the commercially driven modern art world is more arid, enlivened only by a party sequence in which Daniel Evans as George leaves his video-projected avatars to hobnob with the glitterati whilst he sings about the difficulties of "Putting It Together". Meanwhile, Anna Jane Casey has aged 70-odd years in the interval from a vivacious Dot to modern-George's wistful, dying grandmother. Ultimately it's a show as much about Sondheim's own artistic drives as Seurat's, and it has no radical insights to offer about the tensions between art and life. But what it does have is presented here with magnificent style.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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