“There’s a long road ahead of us”
Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory after a number of rewrites since 1999 that have seen the show take on four different titles. The story is based on a real-life one, of early Twentieth Century brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, who are exhorted by their father on his deathbed to seize every opportunity and that they do, both good and bad. Striking it lucky whilst searching for gold, the profligate pair part ways as Addison objects to the gambling that Wilson has become addicted to – despite it multiplying their fortune – and as Wilson turns his hand to all sorts of schemes like boxing promotion and Hollywood, Addison travels the world to eventually settle in Florida and become an architect. Fate draws them together again though as Wilson can’t help but try to capitalise on his brother’s success once again.
Covering so much history of two different people, which in turn is clearly meant to be representative of how the American Dream could go wrong as well as right, means that there is a very episodic feel to Road Show which precludes any real dramatic tension being built up or genuine emotional investigation into any of the characters. There are some fantastic moments in here: ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’ is as tenderly lovely a gay love song as you could hope for; ‘Isn’t He Something!’ details a mother’s love beautifully and the traverse staging, though a little tight and initially disconcerting, makes intriguing use of the space – though a few less dollar bills in the air might not have gone amiss.
Michael Jibson as the more kind-hearted but vulnerable brother is excellent and the way in which he allows David Bedella’s opportunistic Wilson to weasel his way back into his life is horrendously believable. Gillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake are both moving as their parents, whose ghostly presence is always felt, and Jon Robyns is most appealing as the man who offers Addison new opportunities in life and in love. And the company around them fill out the story with a raft of minor characters and strong supporting singing voice.
But it is hard to escape the feeling that the show itself is still somehow problematic despite its endless reworkings. The multiple short episodes lend themselves to something of a chirpiness that becomes a little wearing rather than getting really involved with the brothers; Wilson’s story seems rather superficial and thus under-developed by comparison with Addison’s; at times musically it feels just too close to his other work – I found myself humming ‘Not Getting Married’ and the national stereotyping of ‘Addison’s Trip’ is one of the most misjudged things I’ve seen on stage this year, all the more shocking from coming from the pen of someone as well-regarded as Sondheim and surviving numerous cuts. This European premiere of a most American show will please fans of Sondheim, especially the completists, though I suspect that it isn’t destined to become a classic.