As a rule, I have generally resisted the urge to go to the theatre whilst on holiday, preferring to actually take a proper break from it all, but with free Eurostar tickets to take care of and the promise of a cast that included Julian Ovenden, Beverley Klein and Sophie-Louise Dann, I could not resist the lure of making a trip to Paris to see the Théâtre du Châtelet’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. It is a Sondheim that I hadn’t seen before and the Châtelet’s reputation for producing his work with Lee Blakeley at the helm (previous years have seen them put on A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and next year is Into the Woods) meant that building a weekend away around it was an irresistible choice.
The show uses Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as a starting point explore the relationship between artists and the art they create, and also the impact that pursuing the creative impulse has on those close to them. Ovenden fits the role of Georges perfectly, the grandeur of his virile voice a good match both for the compulsive obsession of the artist and the demands of leading such a show as this – if he wanted to (and I’m not so sure that he does), he really could become one of the premier leading men de nos jours. As his long-suffering mistress Dot, Dann is highly appealing and sounds wonderful and there’s lovely work from supporting players like Francesca Jackson and Rebecca Bottone as a pair of flirty shopgirls and Klein’s Yvonne, negotiating the bumps of her own marriage to an artist.
William Dudley’s smoothly moving set design utilises expansive video work which looks just sensational in recreating the beauty of Seurat’s paintings and the worlds of creation of the artists at hand. And David Charles Abell’s direction of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France brings a lush musicality to the score, even as Sondheim continually challenges with one of his most complex works. The grand surroundings are filled with rich sound from cast and orchestra alike and just occasionally, it is a little bombastic in its pseudo-operatic reach.
But though the atmosphere of the occasion was particularly seductive, I can’t help wonder if the second half is as successful as the first. James Lapine’s book leaps forward in time to visit Seurat’s (fictional) great-grandson, an American artist also named George and struggling with his craft and it is only with the help of his grandma, the daughter of Seurat and Dot, that he finds the strength to deal. The cast mostly manage to the leap to modern-day USA OK but the world it evokes feels a little reductive – a little too stereotypical in its puncturing of this dated version of the modern art world.
That said, the rousing power of the anthemic songs that Sondheim ends the show with wipe much of this ambivalence away and with the crescendos of Move On and the reprise of Sunday, it was impossible not to be swept up in the standing ovation of this hugely appreciative French crowd and the multiple curtain calls that it drew. I’m aware that I may have set myself on the beginnings of a slippery slope as far as taking in theatre abroad in concerned but in this case, it was well worth it. And you’ve still got until Thursday to catch it…