This morning I received a text purporting to be from the NHS inviting me to follow a link to receive my on-line Covid Passport. Whilst it looks totally genuine, after my experience last night I feel a bit wary about taking things at face value. I don’t want to become prey to scammers and end up losing the Graham family fortune, I mean, £26.53 is no small matter.
Apart from ‘Send In The Clowns’ by Judy Collins, A Little Night Music had completely passed me by so I was looking forward to it, especially when I read the information on Leeds Playhouse’s website which describes the show as ‘Glistening with wit and romance, composer Sondheim’s tantalising tale flirts with musical theatre and opera, and includes the classic song ‘Send In The Clowns.’ That will do for me, I thought. What a shock I had in store.
A Little Night Music is essentially a musical farce. Someone once said that farce is comedy for people with no sense of humour, a sentiment with which I concur so, I was intrigued to see what it would look like having being written by the normally cool, sophisticated New Yorker, Stephen Sondheim. Granted he wrote A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum but that was in response to being told that there was a shortage of low-brow comedy productions on Broadway. Not only was it farce, but it was farce by numbers and on looking back over the evening it seemed that every box was ticked; the removal of trousers, chases on and off stage, lovers caught in the act, a military philandering misogynist and his abused wife, a staid middle aged lawyer with a young wife, a neglected son, a risqué actress, people falling into a fountain, various servants and house staff, a young girl and a dowager. The only omissions I could think of were a travelling salesman and a vicar. Not only did the characters make up the complete index from the ‘Farce For Dummies’ handbook, but it was also derivative of everything from The Importance of Being Earnest to Monty Python. Even the title is taken from a work by Mozart. A Little Night Music is the literal translation from the German, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik although in a musical sense it is usually taken to mean A Little Serenade.
The synopsis did not mention the word farce, but did include ‘wit’. Sadly it was more like half-wit and each time a character was going to say something ‘witty’ there was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ pause as if to say to the audience that the next line is going to be funny and if you don’t laugh you must be a bit thick. The tactic certainly worked on some of those present, including a man seated in the row behind me who fell for it every single time. You can always tell someone who is laughing for effect rather than because their giggle button has been hit, it’s a bit like a Christiano Ronaldo injury. For some reason he was not in his seat for the second half, presumably deafened by my silence.
There were also lots of absurdities in the plot, the most obvious being the game of Russian roulette played by two love rivals. The game is played by loading a revolver with a single bullet and spinning the barrel; the first player holds it to his head and pulls the trigger. If it fires he loses – permanently – if it doesn’t he passes the weapon to his opponent who, depending on which version they are using, either puts the barrel against his head and shoots, or spins it again before doing so, the procedure continuing until one of the competitors is relieved of his brains. In the show, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, played by Christopher Nairne, who is one of the contestants, brings out his duelling pistols and loads them both, after which he, and Fredrik Egerman (Quirijn de Lang), the other participant, take one each, leave the room and simultaneously point them to their respective heads and shoot. The problem with this is that duelling pistols are muzzle loaded so will fire every time, not great odds on survival there, then. Despite this, the Count bounces back into the room alive and kicking whereas Fredrik is carried in motionless until he begins to come round having held the gun to his temple but missed!
For the life of me I cannot see an intelligent, sophisticated man like Stephen Sondheim writing stuff like this and expecting it to be taken seriously, let alone funnily. Even some of the songs were reminiscent of other shows, including a dead ringer for I Remember It Well from Gigi. To be fair though I cannot remember any other farce incorporating the word ‘spermatozoa’.
Having spent a full day, and two sleepless nights, trying to work out the mindset of Mr Sondheim I have come to the conclusion that this is his idea of a joke on the audience, enhanced by the final line in the aforementioned song which is ‘Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here’.
I really hope that my analysis of the show is correct because, as a rule I love the work which both Opera North and Leeds Playhouse present but, if I am not, then I will just have to put it down to a clash of taste, I simply don’t find ‘silly’ funny for its own sake. We could have done with just one song possessing the humour of his libretto for West Side Story such as the satire ‘America’, or even ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ which is probably even more relevant today than it was in the 1950s when it was written.
Enough of this theorising, let me get down to the nuts and bolts.
As you would expect, the Orchestra of Opera North was up to its usual impeccable standard even in a reduced, socially distanced form, as was the Chorus, here known as The Quintet, who not only sang but did some scene shifting as well.
Apart from farce, another pet hate of mine is opera singers trying to do popular songs but here everything worked pretty well. Most of the songs lent themselves to opera performers rather than that of stage musical singers, especially the blockbuster A Weekend In The Country which closed the first half. I have always thought that the classically trained voice, although well able to convey the emotions in an aria, is too pure to handle those of a popular song which usually need to be delivered as much in the speaking voice as the singing one. Although the women in the cast generally made a better fist of this than the men, more of that later, the specialist musicals actor, Dame Josephine Barstow, superb as the dowager Madame Armfeldt, showed everyone just how it should be done. commanding the stage even when not part of the main action, usually from her ornate Victorian wheelchair (although she did seem able to walk perfectly well, even negotiating a couple of steps) without ever hitting a High C or rattling the glass.
The acting by the opera singers was patchy, to say the least. Again the women were superb which might have had something to do with their characters being a little more natural, but the men, in keeping with my earlier opinion of the writing, were very much over the top and became merely caricatures. This was accentuated by the wardrobe. In the first half Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, an hussar, was dressed in a Toy Town uniform of blue and white. He used an accent which I presume was supposed to be Swedish but kept veering into German, Scottish and countless (pardon the pun) other dialects when speaking, although it disappeared altogether when he sang. In the second half, Fredrik Engerman had on a Michael Palin tribute outfit with fair isle sleeveless pullover pleated trousers and cravat. On the subject of the Flying Circus, another of the singers in the background was in tribute mode sporting voluminous trousers with braces, a vest and a knotted hankie on his head. The other main male character was Henrik Egerman, Frederik’s son played by Laurence Kilsby who came over all moody teenager, which is just what he was supposed to be, and he managed to keep his performance toned down enough so as to be believable.
As for the ladies, I have already mentioned Dame Josephine Barstow who played Madame Armfeldt, the dowager mother of Desiree (Stephanie Corley), a promiscuous actress and old flame of Fredrik, who was magnificent and whose rendition of Send In The Clowns was well nigh perfect. There are two young actresses sharing the role of Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter – Lucy Sherman and Agatha Meehan who was the girl on stage for our performance. Her interaction with her grandmother was very touching and contrasted the attitudes of the three generations. Anne Egerman, Fredrik’s 18 year-old wife of 11 months but still a virgin, was played by Corinne Cowling, showing a mixture of innocence and fear of intimacy with her husband, preferring to buy herself new clothes. Anne’s maid, Petra played by Amy J Payne came over as a mixture of prim servant and sex bomb, having tried to seduce Henrik out of his moodiness and hit on Madame Armfeldt’s manservant, Frid (Ivan Sharpe), during the country house party which took up all of the second half. Finally there was Countess Charlotte Malcolm who was aware of her husband’s philandering and wasn’t averse to the odd fling herself. She was played by Helen Évora.
The Orchestra of Opera North was conducted by Jim Holmes and the show was directed by James Brining
I have made several attempts to outline the plot but each time it reads like a pitch for a low-budget porn film with everyone playing musical beds but the tune never stopping. The ending was pretty obvious from half way through the first half, although that could be my having watched too many cheap porn films!
Anyway, I hope that you are not too put off by this review, in fact, why not go along and see if you agree with my theory. If you enjoy farce you will love it, if you enjoy great music and singing you will love it and, if you enjoy swearing under your breath at critics you will probably love it even more.
Finally a word about the wonderful front of house staff at Leeds Playhouse who are going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to looking after we theatregoers in these strange times. The Covid rules were strictly, but courteously, enforced and it felt as though they were just as pleased to be back at work as we were to be able to visit the theatre again. Should you be in doubt as to whether it is safe to return to normal life, please give it a go, you will be very well looked after. I look forward to seeing them all again soon. Providing I am granted admission after this article.
A Little Night Music is at Leeds Playhouse until 17th July. For tickets and more details please click on the link below.
All photographs by Sharron Wallace