Little Theatre, Dunstable.
Those of you following this blog, and there must be a few sad souls seeing as I have had over 1,700 hits since I started it, will know that theatre is intermingled with horseracing. The photo is a clue. (Albertas Run is the pretty one). Those same few will also probably know, if not here is a reminder, that I have set up the self appointed Dunstable Rep Handicap Theatre Stakes. Originally intended to be the six runners from the Rep season I have decided to amend the rules (what rules?) and include visiting productions. If the Epsom Derby can allow late supplements then so can I. Besides it will make my annual review in July much more interesting.
So ACT’s Still Life and Luton Light’s A Little Night Music both get a saddlecloth and whatever is the theatrical equivalent of blinkers or cheek pieces. They are in strong company with dazzling performances in Plaza Suite, a superb lead and inventive direction in A Christmas Carol, and a riveting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But I never did like an easy life and, besides, you can bet each way on an eight runner field. So Luton Lighters reading the following, Remember as Sondheim might say, you are now in a race. The only difference is, unlike Cheltenham, I decide who wins.
The first thing to say is that Mathew Orr pulled it out of the bag last week. I might have had a few issues with the staging but overall his A Little Night Music oozed class. Stephen Sondheim is a bit of a marmite composer but I definitely fall into the category of adoring much of his haunting music and clever lyrics. This one, Company, and the first half of Sunday in the Park with George knock spots off that Lloyd-Webber kid. It feeds into the mind and heart in a way that the simple tunes of Andy never do. In my opinion. We are in musical Marmite country. Based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, for those who don’t know him he makes Ibsen and Strindberg seem lightweight, A Little Night Music tells the tale of old and young romantic love and wraps it in a smidgeon of Scandinavian farce.
A lawyer and a Count love, or at least desire, an ageing actress. The lawyer’s angst ridden son loves his teenage and frigid stepmother, the Countess is romantically frustrated and the lawyer’s maid, showing them all how it is done, seems to be sexually active with everyone she falls over. In scenes wrapped by the ageing actresses’ mother and daughter we get the scenic Smiles of Bergman’s Summer Night. It could be heavy, but the performances and that music, framed by a superb quintet of chorus singers, made this an engaging evening of local theatre.
Richard Cowling (the lawyer) has a voice so sweet and clear you could lick it to the last drop and still have room for the lollipop stick. He sang beautifully throughout, especially his ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, and his pompous persona struck exactly the right acting note. Karen Nicol could not match him in the singing stakes but her Desiree Armfeldt was every inch the actress whose best years were behind her. All the time she was on stage you had the feeling that this was a woman who expected all to fall at her feet. Actresses are like that. So I am told. And in a superb acting performance that almost stole the show Caroline Fitch beautifully created the lawyer’s silly and inadequate teenage wife. Miss Fitch suffered a bit on the singing stakes, not many can compete with Mr Cowling, but her characterisation of the sexually naive Anne Egerman was a joy.
Elsewhere we got a beautifully crafted aristocratic matriarch from Rona Cracknell, an intense and complex lawyer’s son from Daniel Quirke and, in a performance which in a lesser production would have scored all the brownie points, a superbly sexual maid from Kate Brennan. If her Petra’s flashing eyes were not enough we had an amazing ‘The Miller’s Son’ song to cap a delightful portrayal. And they batted long in this production. Emma Storey’s Countess, sweet as it was, may have lacked acerbity and Ellie Reay’s actress daughter, nicely played, struck me as little more than a feed for her Grandmother’s important plot points amongst the cards. But Aaron Prior’s straight backed Count entered and performed with just the right level of absurdity. And all combined magnificently for their invitations to ‘A Weekend in the Country’. This mixture of narrative drive and sumptuous music, actors sharp as buttons, absolutely zinged.
I did say I had a few staging issues. Lee Freeman’s orchestra occasionally drowned out the weaker singers and, on a simple but clever set, the bed was wheeled out more times than was good for it. But overall this was a very good production. Beautiful music, strong performances, classy costumes. And I don’t usually notice the latter. Unless it’s cheek pieces. Night Waltz and Remember still haunt me. Luton Light’s A Little Night Music is a serious horse in a less than serious race. But it will add to the fun.