Review by Sam Waite
With the sheer amount produced, not all art can be fully appreciated in its own time – even a second, in this case. Taking the structure and central theme of the original play by Kaufman and Hart, itself a critical success but a financial failure, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along fared no better but has become better known and more well-regarded in the decades since. With its complicated history, this may seem a risky choice for the National Youth Music Theatre, but with the support of The Stephen Sondheim Society, their bringing the piece to life at the Southwark Playhouse, Elephant proves to be a strong decision.
The story opens in 1976 at the home of Frank Shepard, a successful and well-liked producer who’s moved from his Broadway roots to make a fortune in Hollywood. Mary Flynn, a cynical alcoholic, watches from the bar as men in suits and fabulous young women flit about celebrating their host’s genius – she’s one of his oldest friends, though the word seems less applicable these days. Following an incident in which the mood sours at the mention of playwright Charley Kringas, Frank’s one-time partner, and Mary becoming belligerent and bringing the night to an early close, we begin to work our way backwards.
Sondheim’s score, as strong as ever, was received warmly when the show first premiered, but the book caused confusion and the themes left a bitter taste in the mouths of audiences. Revisions were made in subsequent productions, this one included, in which the ensemble use a recurring motif to establish the year in which each scene occurs, eliminating this sense of confusion. Katherine Hare, acting as director for the NYMT production, has signs stating these years placed and replaced over the stage as part of her blocking, giving a physicality to these transitions that helps smooth things along.
Hare’s directorial choices are strong but unimposing – she and her young cast have crafted the main roles marvellously, with line readings never seeming to imitate a former star or lose the intent of the dialogue. Her choice to have actors enter and exit past the audience, through the doors to the bar, as well as through doors and steps within the set, helps to establish the business and frantic nature of some of the showbiz settings our trio of protagonists find themselves in. The placement of actors, ensemble and leading, always feels deliberate but never pulls focus.
As once clean-cut and tee-total but eventually drunken and spiteful Mary Flynn, Madeleine Morgan is a standout from the moment the story begins. With the plot moving backwards, Morgan is tasked not only with the transformation from lovelorn, sweet yet sarcastic sidekick into embittered and defeated hanger-on, but beginning as the least likeable and most broken version and slowly becoming kinder, gentler in her acting. Along with a stellar, characterful voice, Morgan brings a sharp tongue and acidic wit to Mary’s one-liners, her delivery and pacing entirely her own, but is almost tearfully genuine in her heartbreak at unrequited love and anguish at seeing their friendships break apart so completely in later scenes.
Among the other highlights are Frank’s two wives, demure, warm-hearted Beth, and fame-hungry temptress Gussie. Sophie Lagden brings a real sparkle to Gussie, giving her the voice and mannerisms of a golden-age star but layering both a flirtatious, almost scandalous energy into the party scenes of the past and a harsh, almost cruel lilt to her bickering with her adulterous husband in the opening scene. As Beth, Matilda Shapland brings delicacy and strength to a woman so willing to trust and eventually so thoroughly betrayed – her singing voice, both in its quivering, emotive belts, and its light, beautiful falsetto, is stunning and carries a great deal of emotional heft.
Indeed, this more than twenty-strong ensemble all prove to be more than capable of handling the material – higher praise than it may sound, Mr Sondheim’s scores being notorious for difficulty and nuance. No vocal line wavers, no dialogue is missed or poorly spoken, and every mark is hit with precision from the entire cast, whose ages range from 12 (Matilda Penna, delightful as Frank’s daughter and with a strong, assured voice) to 23. Perhaps the odd accent was too strong or an occasional joke lacking its usual subtlety, but not one moment was truly weak. A similar age range and level of skill is shown by the live orchestra, who range from 16 to 23 and all play beautifully. One of the reasons that has popularised Sondheim songs as “Do Not Sing” numbers for auditions is the difficulty of playing them, and with these musicians you’d never realise this was the case – they make it look easy, and sound beautiful.
Charley, Frank’s writing partner who is less tempted by fame and success, is a tricky role to do justice. He must be the kind of man who throws away his and his friend’s opportunity for continued success on live television, but also the kind who you fully believe when he preaches about the importance of artistic integrity and the belief that doing good work will find success in its own time. Thomas Oxley does a fabulous job with the role, bringing a strong presence to early patter song “Franklin Shepard, Inc” and managing the task of balancing a near-constant frustration with Frank with a genuine and palpable love for him, and a real want for their working relationship to not have to end the way it ultimately does.
Frank himself is played by Toby Owers, who seems almost to contort his face for the role. In those first scenes, where Frank is too inflated by his own success, and beyond caring about hurting those around him, Owers has a visible smugness that makes you wonder how people can have faces so punchable. Quickly, though, we come to see that this is simply due to the strength of his work, and that he becomes friendlier, more approachable in appearance and mannerisms as we follow Frank through his long, complex history. Essentially to selling the role of Franklin Shepard, Owers makes the scenes of the past so filled with confliction and a genuine want to find the “right” answer to every question that we can look back at the caricature we first met with a degree of pity.
Libby Todd’s set design brings two levels to the Elephant’s space – a winding metal staircase leads up to a high stage, while below the actors perform on the floor itself, level with the audience. This allows Hare to transition between locations with ease, as the two spaces can act as two separate rooms or as a single enlarged space, as when the stage must become a TV studio or the foyer of a Broadway venue. Todd also utilises sliding doors at the back of the downstairs section to allow for another route of entry, as well as to create striking tableaus alongside lighting designer Aaron Dootson – the cast will take position behind the screen doors, and we will see their silhouettes from the outside.
Julia Cave makes strong use of the space with her choreography, though little in this particular musical calls for dancing. Still, the movement she is able to employ is strong and well-utilised, keeping everyone in a near-constant motion where a sense of momentum or confusion is needed, and joining Hare in the careful, deliberate placement of each cast member to inform the scenes. Sound design by Tom Marshall helps to bring some sense of order to the chaos this risks creating, keeping every voice at the correct level and allowing the entire ensemble to shine consistently.
Of course, there are issues to be expected with putting on such a deceptively complicated show in a smaller venue, with some small jokes in the penultimate number, “Opening Doors”, being lost because a microphone was turned back up just a second too late. Then there’s the show itself – while it’s a personal favourite of mine, I do agree that there are clunkier moments of dialogue, and some of the call-backs (call-forwards?) to details of the characters’ future lives are a little too pointed, and don’t add anything to the narrative or to the humour.
But this is still a triumphant production, produced on a scale and with an ability far beyond some of its cast and company’s years. Watching these young performers and musicians, and reading the acclaim given to the company by alumni in the programme – Idris Elba and Sheridan Smith among them – gives me faith in the future of the theatre. Some moments prove there is more to learn, but with such challenging material, I’d challenge veteran thespians to do any better!
Merrily We Roll Along plays at the Southwark Playhouse, Elephant for five shows only, August 24th to August 26th.
For tickets and information visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/merrily-we-roll-along/
Photos by Konrad Bartelski