Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 3 December, 2008

Director Trevor Nunn ends 2008 as he began it, in Ingmar Bergman territory, moving from the bleakness of Scenes From A Marriage to the relatively upbeat Smiles Of A Summer Night. Only relatively, of course: this being Bergman, and being moreover Stephen Sondheim’s musical version, the smiles are always going to be rueful, wistful or -ful of something else to modulate them into a minor key. Indeed, the one perfect marriage here, amid the tangle of wed and unwed couples, is that of Bergman and Sondheim. The composer’s sensibility may often seem Upper West Side Manhattan to the marrow, but it meshes beautifully with the Nordic fatalism of the story. As Maureen Lipman’s Madame Armfeldt advises her granddaughter, “Never marry, or even dally with, a Scandinavian.”
Lipman, enthroned in a wheelchair, glares at the proceedings like a baleful pelican as her actress daughter Desiree fends off one lover and tries to reclaim an old flame who has since married (but not yet consummated with) a teenaged bride with whom his Lutheran son is also in love... and so on. Matters come to a head chez Armfeldt on a night when (as the chorus singers keep reminding us) the sun never sets.
Alexander Hanson has a strong pedigree as both an actor and singer, and is well cast as lawyer Fredrik Egerman: mature enough to be trying to regain his youth with 18-year-old Anne, but also middle-young enough to be a match for Hannah Waddingham’s Desiree who, even more than Miss Jean Brodie, is absolutely in her prime. Her appearance in Spamalot made Waddingham a name; if this production transfers to the West End, as it ought to (despite being finely tooled to the chamber dimensions of the Menier), her winning combination of appeal and depth will deservedly make her a star.
Loath as I am to endorse the TV talent-quest I’d Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh showed some discernment in their admiration of Jessie Buckley, who did not win the series but makes an impact here as Anne Egerman. Also worthy of note is Kelly Price, whose delightfully disingenuous performance as Countess Malcolm expunges all memories of her in the musical of Desperately Seeking Susan. This nocturnal sunshine is just the stuff to get us through the dark midwinter.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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