Company at the Gielguld: A flawless revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ★★★★★

This updated version of Stephen Sondheim's musical is Sex and the City with a touch of Bridget Jones, raised to new heights by Broadway legend Patti LuPone, says Simon O'Hagan

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The bar stool is her throne, the cocktail glass her sceptre, and the regality is pitched somewhere between Mae West and Dorothy Parker. It’s the moment, deep into the second half of this flawless revival of Stephen Sondheim’s great 1970 work, when Patti LuPone raises it to a whole other level — with a performance of The Ladies Who Lunch that sends the audience into such sustained raptures that you wonder whether the action will ever get going again.

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 If that was the stand-out moment of the evening, there were so many others in a production of Sondheim’s study of love’s paradoxes that brimmed with ideas and intelligence as much as it did with energy and flair, both visual and musical.

 Company has been performed countless times the world over, but this production is a first in a very big way, with the leading role of Bobbie — a New York singleton whose friends are badgering her into getting married — played as a woman not a man. It works so beautifully — with Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie conveying such veracity and pathos — that you wonder how it has never been presented as a woman’s story before.

 And there’s more: one of the five couples – Paul and Amy in the original — is now Paul and Jamie, and that works beautifully too, with Jonathan Bailey outstanding as the neurotic Jamie.   

 Maybe nobody asked Sondheim if he’d allow any of this, but director Marianne Elliott did, and the result is a triumph to rank with War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both of them huge hits of Elliott’s on the London stage in recent years.

 In Company, we’re in Sex and the City country with a touch of Bridget Jones, but as with both of those creations, Sondheim and writer George Furth are as interested in the married state as they are in the single one.

The action is centred around Bobbie’s 35th birthday, the story updated to the era of the smartphone. We see Bobbie forlornly swiping left. “How many times do you get to be 35,” she wonders. “11?”

 We begin with her home alone picking up birthday messages on her phone — all from friends in couples, inadvertently or otherwise emphasising her solitariness. Bobbie’s dress — a vivid red, in blazing contrast to the muted colours all around her — performs the same function. But are the couples any happier?

 In a series of vignettes, and across some wonderful numbers gloriously sung, we get to know everyone and their joys and disappointments, nobody’s experience conveyed with more acerbic wit than LuPone’s Joanne, married for the third time and looking back on an earlier husband with the observation that “he was so hard to remember — even when you were with him”.

 The lovely turn from Mel Giedroyc as the wholesomely bourgeois Sarah — married to the genial, overweight, delusional Harry (Gavin Spokes) — is one of many, and while this is not a production on the grand scale of Sondheim’s Follies in the National Theatre’s brilliant 2017 revival, it doesn’t need to be.

 Company is a chamber work, perfectly served by Bunny Christie’s design in which scenes are played out in rectangular compartments that are perhaps meant to hint at life’s limitations. But of the pleasures of this production, there really are no limits.

Simon O’Hagan

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Booking at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th March 2o19