Although based on a film by the master of nordic angst, Ingmar Bergman, and with the bulk of its second act taking place at night, this is Sondheim’s sunniest musical.
It casts an affectionate eye on three lovelorn couples: a celebrated actress and a sexually frustrated lawyer; the lawyer’s virgin bride and his theology student son; the actress’s military lover and his neglected wife.
The romantic round dance is observed by the actress’s mother, once a fashionable courtesan, and her adolescent granddaughter. The score contains Send In The Clowns, Sondheim’s most successful stand-alone song (he once wryly referred to the orchestra “playing a medley of my one hit”), along with some of his most heartfelt lyrics.
Although, elsewhere, he favours virtuosity over verisimilitude; here, he puts his linguistic wizardry at the service of genuine feeling. Alex Clifton’s production is both delicate and deft. Sparely staged against Jess Curtis’s symbolist backdrop, it eschews period setting in order to focus on the timeless misadventures of “the young who know nothing… the fools who know too little… and the old who know too much.”
Leigh Quinn and Megan-Hollie Robertson take the honours for the young; Serena Evans, Mary Doherty, Daniel Flynn and Kayi Ushe for the fools; and the gloriously incisive Gay Soper for the old.
But the loudest plaudits go to Richard Lounds, who brings both genuine pain and a sharp comic edge to the often-overlooked role of theology student Henrik.
Chester’s Storyhouse company, in its newly opened theatre, offers an adventurous programme of Shakespeare, contemporary classics and adaptations.
Describe The Night
Hampstead Theatre, with its emphasis on new writing, has a far more dif cult brief. Even so, its recent record has been dire.
Describe The Night is no exception. no one can fault Rajiv Joseph’s ambition in seeking to chart the brutality, corruption and deceit that have blighted Russia from the early days of the Revolution to the despotic rule of Vladimir Putin.
But this play is as indigestible as the leech soup served to the young Putin in one ludicrous scene.
The play’s abrupt chronological shifts from Poland in 1920 to Smolensk in 2010 and from 1940s Moscow to 1989 Dresden are disorientating rather than thought- provoking.
The play’s tonal shifts from Kafkaesque nightmare to Pythonesque absurdity are equally clumsy.
As ever at Hampstead, the set (designed by Polly Sullivan) is superb and the performances are deeply felt, if not entirely successful.
But, from the writer Isaac Babel’s laboured attempt to “describe the night” in the opening scene to the leech soup that allegedly enables eaters to smell the future, the play is painfully self-conscious.
It’s hard not to apply the KGB chief’s assessment of Babel’s work to the play itself: “Weird… trying too hard to be funny.”