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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Company at The Southwark Playhouse

Endless wrong turnings meant the two minute walk from London Bridge station to the Southwark Playhouse took an agonising forty-five, resulting finally in a rather desperate taxi trip. I have never been to the theatre before and was confused by a strange (and infuriating) trail of signs directing us, quite literally, in the opposite direction. Note to all S.P. first timers: turn RIGHT out of London Bridge Station, not left and your journey should be quick painless.

When we eventually arrived at the Playhouse I was delighted by the building's stature and general appearance, impressively established-looking for a fringe theatre. The interior is rather dark and damp, much like a warehouse, though oddly comfortable with stools and sofas, and an accessible bar selling drinks and snacks. We made our way to the theatre space quickly, with unreserved seating you have to get in there fast!

Company is one of Stephen Sondheim’s more familiar musicals; with memorable melodies and repetitive choruses, it is easy to enjoy. The songs are catchy and fun and have become popular as audition pieces, unsurprisingly considering how the different solo numbers evoke individual character’s personalities. This production has a little band accompanying; I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t see them anywhere, perhaps they are tucked away due to lack of space. A charismatic Oli Jackson (I could just see him on the screen) leads the group of musicians in a tight and together performance - thanks to effective amplification one can hear the music sharp and loud and it energises the whole show.

I was engrossed by the singers thrilling approach to the first chorus. Their concentration and power makes the music immediately gripping, and made me want to sit up and listen. Paul Wills’ staging is simple and flexible, easily transforming into the necessary New York backdrops. For me it was a little bare though, a few extra props or motifs could have represented the couples and given the actors more to play with on stage.

Bobby is a 35 year old single guy left stranded amongst his coupled up friends. The musical is a study in marriage and relationships as Bobby struggles to figure out what it all means. We are introduced to the different couples, each with their own ‘kind’ of love. The advantages and disadvantages of their lifestyles are contrasted with Bobby’s life of parties and freedom. The action revolves around Bobby’s 35thbirthday celebrations.

A dashing Rupert Young plays the enigma that is Bobby. He sports a dishevelled look, and is definitely more of an actor than a singer. His life seems to be a mad whirlwind of alcohol, drugs and women, which are all he seems interested in. That’s okay, but this 21st century spin on Sondheim makes him seem a little out of place next to his set of ordinary middle-aged friends. I noticed early on that I recognised Young and after much brain racking I realised I had in fact been directed by him ten years back in W11 Children’s Opera.

Bobby’s single girlfriends are great, full of girly angst. Katie Brayben, the air hostess has brilliant comic timing in her main scene with Bobby. And Michelle Bishop heroically conquers the complex song ‘Another Hundred People’ without slipping.

Of the couples, there are some performers that stand out more than others. Siobhan McCarthy storms the stage as the sour and sultry older woman, Joanne... she gets the best song ‘Ladies who lunch’ which she screams at us with venom and vigour. But my favourite role is Amy – the manic girl who gets cold feet on her wedding day. A highly accomplished singer, who has come from a part in West End hit Avenue Q, she delivers the hysterically fast ‘Not Getting Married Today’ with precision and strength, it is a marvel. Her husband to be, Greg Castiglioni as Paul is a quiet role, but has a stunning voice when he gets his chance to sing: lyrical and strong with a rich tone.

A fresh if slightly odd interpretation of a Sondheim hit, vocally this production is a real winner. I thoroughly enjoyed it despite its shortcomings.

Company continues until 12 March 2011, book tickets here.