Review: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre

Bradley Jaden’s biceps and Bonnie Langford make this a delightful, if belated, trip to Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends at the Gielgud Theatre

“I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear”

So much was made about the all-star gala concert to celebrate the life of Stephen Sondheim that it was perhaps doomed not to meet my expectations when the televised version aired in the last festive season. There was just something a bit glib and disjointed about the whole affair, a showing-off of look at who we can invite without really interrogating how the show would thread together. Thus, when Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends announced a run at the Gielgud Theatre, I demurred.

But as pal after pal said what the hell are you thinking, I finally took the opportunity of a decent ticket offer to pop along and naturally, I was kidding myself that I wouldn’t absolutely adore it. For I did, I wept tears of happiness on multiple occasions and what just didn’t work for me on screen, simply came to glorious life on stage. A key aspect to the show’s success is the pruning of the company to remove the novelty elements (Rob Brydon, Helena Bonham Carter…) and some of the more leftfield choices (Petula Clark, bless her cotton socks).

Whilst we do miss the likes of Dame Judi, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Maria Friedman, there’s no stinting on star quality as Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga lead from the front, with the dreaminess of Joanna Riding, Janie Dee and the glorious Bonita Melody Lysette Langford and much more besides making up this reformed cast group. And it just clicks together so much better to my mind, everyone getting the chance to do at least a few numbers and less of the fawning applause to top and tail every, single, number.

Getting to see both Peters and Salonga onstage for the first time was all I wanted it to be. Peters’ way of interpreting a melody refreshes almost anything she sings and the cracks in her voice bring such emotion to her work, particularly in ‘Send in the Clowns’. And Salonga is delightful as a bold Mrs Lovett, my only note would be that it would have been lovely to have them intersect and duet a little more. Joanna Riding’s ‘Getting Married Today’, Janie Dee’s ‘The Boy From…’, and Claire Burt’s ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ (stepping in for the much missed Haydn Gwynne) also hit the mark perfectly.

Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and musically staged and direction by Matthew Bourne with Julia McKenzie, the revue does cleave a little too close to convention than is strictly necessary. There’s little adventurousness in song choice and no imagination in allocation (only ‘Could I Leave You’ is sung cross-gender, Gavin Lee having a ball with it). But in some ways you’re not really expecting this to break the mould, nor was I expecting Bonnie Langford to deliver ‘I’m Still Here’ in such an exultant and show-stopping manner and that’s on me.

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