Review by Daz Gale
Last year, stars of the West End and Broadway gathered to pay tribute and celebrate the legacy of the legendary Stephen Sondheim. The resulting concert Old Friends became a theatrical sensation, becoming quite possibly my favourite night I have ever spent in a theatre. With an event like that though, you know it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, never to be repeated… or so we thought. Cue the announcement that the show was returning to the West End, this time for a 16 week run. Add in to the mix one of the leading Broadway stars returning for the whole run, this time bringing another Broadway icon with her and the excitement for this production was palpable. With expectations higher than ever and the memory of last year’s flawless concert ever-present in my mind, could the full West End run ever be able to live up to it?
If you’re reading this review, I’m going to take a guess that you are all too familiar with the life and works of Stephen Sondheim, but for the benefit of anyone who may have clicked the link to this website in error, perhaps mistaking it for a jewellery shop or a Chicago fanbase, let me sum it up for you: Stephen Sondheim is as legendary as they come. A truly iconic and influential figure in the world of musical theatre, his many credits include Company, Follies, Into The Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. He passed away in November 2021, leaving behind a career others could only dream of, having touched the hearts of millions of people in his time. With such a remarkable career and no shortage of songs to pick from, how could they ever come up with a show that was anything less than 12 hours long? The answer was to choose numbers from shows Sondheim worked on with producer Cameron Mackintosh and the result was nothing short of spectacular.
Any trepidation I had for this production dissipated mere moments into the show when Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga sauntered on the stage with such a casual nonchalance to their own magnificent careers to introduce proceedings. If that’s how a show like this can start, what did they have in store for the next two and a half hours? The answer to that is a never-ending ride that never dipped below an impossibly high standard.
Bernadette Peters had several scene-stealing performances in the one-off concert last year, having worked closely with Stephen Sondheim in multiple projects over the year, she has an affinity with the material like few others. Due to the slightly differing production, her role is slightly bigger this time, giving her more classic numbers to lend her own inimitable vocals too. From the beautiful ‘Send In The Clowns’ to one of the undoubted standouts of the evening with a highly emotional and truly special ‘Losing My Mind’, seeing such an accomplished performer like Bernadette in a West End show was a dream come true and a reminder of why she is regarded as one of the greatest Broadway divas.
New to this production is Lea Salonga, who gave a goosebump-inducing performance of ‘Loving You’ from Passion, a beautiful ‘Somewhere’ and a powerful ‘Rose’s Turn’ among her own highlights. A collaboration with Bernadette on ‘Children Will Listen’ provided a poignant moment and felt like a passing of the torch from one generation to the next, something you feel Sondheim would have approved of. It was the use of his songs to form brief showcases of their respective shows that makes Old Friends such a special production, and using Lea to play Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd was an inspired choice. Her ‘The Worst Pies In London’ and ‘A Little Priest’ showed what an incredible character actress Lea really is and had me longing for her to play the role in a future West End production if it happens.
Bernadette and Lea weren’t the only stars in Old Friends. In fact, the whole show is bursting with them. Bonnie Langford continues her ability to steal every scene she’s in thanks to her star quality and signature dance moves (What would this show be without her doing the splits?). Popping up in many of the group numbers to add some comedy to the production, it was her act 2 rendition of ‘I’m Still Here’ that truly brought the house down, delivering one of the performances of the night.
Janie Dee gets a comic highlight with her rendition of ‘The Boy From…’ while Joanna Riding truly brought the house down with an impeccable ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company. Having been a last minute addition to the show after a cast member had to pull out, resulting in a delay to opening, Clare Burt was a complete joy throughout, particularly in her rousing ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, which was every bit as fabulous as the last time I witnessed that song performed on the same stage by Patti LuPone.
Other highlights among the ridiculously talented cast are Jason Pennycooke shining on ‘Buddy’s Song’, Jeremy Secomb all throughout but particularly the Sweeney Todd sequence and Bradley Jaden having the time of his life as the wolf in ‘Hello, Little Girl’ . Gavin Lee delivers a masterclass in every performance he is involved in with a hilarious ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ alongside Clare Burt, and a complex and often sinister ‘Could I Leave You?’
It was the unique opportunity to watch a group of incredible talents performing together that provided most of the standouts of the night, with Bernadette Peters leading a deliberately chaotic ‘Broadway Baby’ having the audience howling. While ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ alongside Clare Burt and Joanna Riding was perhaps THE performance of the show with Bernadette’s deliberately lazy approach to the number a touch of comic genius. Old Friends is a show that taps in to emotions, making you feel deeply and extremely – from the intense laughter of these light-hearted numbers to a heart-wrenching ‘Not A Day Goes By’ featuring the cast singing to a montage of photos of the late Stephen Sondheim, resulting in a lot of sniffles being heard around the theatre. Leading in to an urgent ‘Being Alive’ and culminating with the triumphant ‘Old Friends’ takes the audience on a rapid journey through all the tragedies, hope and joy life has to offer in a meticulous bit of staging.
This show may not need anything other than the star power of its legendary cast to make it as special it is. However, the production value of the show elevates it to God-tier status. Matthew Bourne’s inspired direction along with Julia McKenzie gives a versatile and always fascinating approach to the songs, whether they be standalone numbers or as part of a mini-show, such as the short sequences for Company, Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. Bourne’s attention to detail and playful nature brings each number to life with a consistent vibrancy, paired with Stephen Mear's fantastic choreography to create pure theatre magic.
Old Friends is equally pleasing to the eyes with a gorgeous set design by Matt Kinley, gloriously building upon the original set that resided at the Sondheim Theatre last year. George Reeve’s projection is used to create some beautiful moments with a particularly gorgeous Sunday In The Park With George transition. The whole thing is lit beautifully by Warren Letton, with a blackout in ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ providing a visual highlight, thanks to Jill Parker’s always exquisite costume design. With musical arrangements by Stephen Metcalfe, supervision by Stephen Brooker and sound design by Mick Potter, Sondheim’s stunning songbook is played out in glorious fashion, effortlessly matching the high caliber of numbers he left behind and perhaps sounding better than they have ever done before.
If anybody ever tells you the perfect show doesn’t exist, tell them about Old Friends and prove them wrong. While the chance to see such well-renowned stars on the stage together is a draw in itself, there is so much more to this show than that. The carefully selected songbook and meticulously planned execution of these numbers on stage all signify a genuine warmth to the late, great composer himself with the determination to honour him and continue his legacy after his passing. In that respect, they have done him proud.
Always exciting and varied in tone, Old Friends can take you to paradise one moment and remind you of the fragility of life in the next. The over-arching theme is life-affirming in itself and becomes a celebration of not just Sondheim but musical theatre and life itself. I regularly say theatre at its best can make you feel and this show did that more than most have managed in the past. While I definitely cried a few years, I came out of there feeling jubilant and thankful an art form like musical theatre exists and I was blessed to be alive at the same time as Stephen Sondheim. A truly phenomenal talent, Old Friends is a beautiful and fitting tribute to him. If we never see a show like this again in my lifetime, I’m glad I got to experience it. So special, so magical, so perfect.
Old Friends plays at the Gielgud Theatre until 6th January 2024. Tickets from https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/whats-on/old-friends
Photos by Danny Kaan