A new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy Company, the original version of which ran on Broadway in the 1970’s, has just opened at the Gielgud theatre to huge excitement in the theatre world. The original musical has been revived several times - with good reason. Sondheim’s musical comedy was a multiple Tony award-winner and developed the reputation of having some of Sondheim’s best music and lyrics. This latest version, by director Marianne Elliott, updates the original by changing the sex of the main protagonist to a woman as well as switching other members of the cast, so that modern gender politics including gay marriage can be explored. The success of this experiment, affected with minimal change to the original book and score is testament to the genius of Sondheim's work.

Company is the story of a woman, Bobbie, whose friends are all married couples. Bobbie is in the uncomfortable position of being questioned about why she remains single. Although she seems to occasionally question herself, her self-doubt is almost always in response to the conventional prodding of the friends around her and we follow her, often comic, struggle to develop a true sense of herself.

Bobbie’s story is told through a series of humorous sketches in which each of the couples reveal themselves and the nature of their relationship. As each sketch unfolds, the conventional façade through which Bobbie sees each couple, opens for a moment of transparency – revealed by the puncturing effect of Sondheim’s witty and ironic lyrics. And in the scenes where Bobbie is dating, this same irony is directed at the expense of her male suitors and at conventional ideas of marriage, all done with a light and comic touch and hints of depth and complexity in the lyrics.

The power of the music and lyrics, which are the heart and soul of the play, is supported superbly by this production on all levels: the performance of the musical numbers by the cast is outstanding as are the choreography and set-design. The coherence and high level of all of these elements is an additional sign of the production’s overall indebtedness to its direction.

If there is a limitation in the production it is not in the production itself, from which one could not ask more, but in the very thin-thread of a linear story-line which has no twists or turns or obvious development to push the movement forward. Bobbie’s journey through these moments of realization is driven primarily by the wonderful music and lyrics and by the outstanding performance of those musical numbers by the cast- both on the level of singing and acting.

Where the plot feels thin, the songs seem to have a structure and development in themselves which carries things along and culminates in the final song, Being Alive, sung by Bobbie, who realizes that she can live as she is and that, all lives, hers as well as those of her married friends, have complexities and frailties. Although the plot is ostensibly about being single or married, it is essentially a play about being different or an outsider.

This is a wonderful production - very memorable both visually and musically – a thoroughly exhilarating evening.

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