“It’s but a pleasurable means
To a measurable end”
Sondheim’s reputation as one of our finest living composers rests not only on the delicious complexity of his music but also on the superlative performances that it draws from actors who must delve extraordinarily deep to rise to its challenges. Not every performer is able to ascend these heady heights but it gives me enormous pleasure to report that Josefina Gabrielle delivers one of those utterly transcendent moments with a nigh-on perfect interpretation of Desiree Armfeldt at the Watermill.
As a once-famed actress not quite getting the gigs she believes she should, she presents the facade of ‘The Glamourous Life’ beautifully – a touch self-deprecating, two touches self-assured, she knows how to rule a room. But try as she might, she can’t always rule the hearts of others as evinced in the bittersweet ‘Send In The Clowns’ which is made to feel brand new here, Gabrielle finding fresh textures and feeling (the startled emotion of ‘I thought that you’d want what I want’ seems to surprise even her) to completely and utterly break the heart (the song’s final line has never been delivered more affectingly, and I’m including the Dench in there!).
Given the name of this blog, it should come as little surprise that I find it hard to resist productions of A Little Night Music, even when they’re in deepest Berkshire. But Paul Foster is a director I admire and actor-musician productions are often superb in their ingenuity. And so it proves here, Sarah Travis’ arrangements for this company of 13 (playing piccolos to double basses) are meticulously done, losing none of the music’s majesty even as it is considerably reconfigured in some parts.
The magic comes from all sides though – Foster’s desire to create an intimate and seductively romantic chamber piece is brought to glorious life in the burnished wood of David Woodhead’s design and the stunning lighting work from Howard Hudson, which mixes the naturalistic glow of Swedish midsummer with more abstract tableaux of painterly grace. With Matt Flint’s elegant choreography in there as well, the show looks ravishing pretty much from start to finish.
And though I’ve singled out Gabrielle, this really is an ensemble piece full of real quality. Alastair Brookshaw’s nerdish lawyer Fredrik is beautifully sung but crucially has a keen sense of the character’s tragicomic nature, especially in the physical mismatch with Alex Hammond’s rakish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, his rival in extramarital attentions from Desiree. Hammond is also well-matched with Phoebe Fildes as his long-suffering wife Charlotte, whether solo in a nuanced ‘Every Day A Little Death’ or as part of the intricate interplay of the superb ‘Weekend In The Country’. Plus Dillie Keane is acerbically brilliant as Madame Armfeldt, Christina Tedders is no less scene-stealingly good as the maid Petra, there really are no weak links here at all.
I’ve rarely felt as connected to the emotion of A Little Night Music as I was here, with a production that is as in tune with the nature of its comedy as its tragedy, at once rueful and romantic, deeply sensual and utterly irresistible. Don’t wait for a transfer that won’t necessarily come, book now!