“A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.” Thus was Stephen Sondheim’s description of his 1970 musical Company, but in this new production the man (Bobby) is a woman (Bobbie) with director Marianne Elliott having had two reasons for switching the gender. First, while a 35-year old man being single in 1970 was still different enough from the norm as to be worthy of exploration, today people would be more inclined to ask what the issue was. Second, when the story is stripped down it involves a man sleeping around with no real interest in, or sense of responsibility towards, the women he beds, which is at the very least distasteful in the modern day.
The chosen approach works well, however, for the simple reason that, given the story, it is just as valid for it to be told about a woman as a man. This is because, whether by accident or design, Sondheim’s writing, and George Furth’s libretto, ensure that it is ultimately human, as opposed to specifically male, feelings that underpin the piece. In fact, this production is at its strongest when it never occurs to us that the genders have been reversed, and it is amazing just how often this is the case. This said, a few alterations have been required, which on some occasions have simply involved changing ‘he’ to ‘she’ but on others have been a little more substantial. There are a few moments when the results seem a little deliberate, although never so much as to undermine the overall wisdom of the approach, which also has the advantage of bringing freshness to the story since it has never been employed before.
The staging is excellent as Bunny Christie’s sets present each room featured in the drama as a box-like area with a thick neon light frame. The one representing Bobbie’s home is grey and small, which suggests something about her state of mind, while her friends at her birthday party can converse with her while being outside it, or alternatively cram into it to heighten her sense of claustrophobia. Other rooms slide on and off as required, with the manner in which Bobbie can leave her own house and enter Sarah and Harry’s, which has only just appeared, helping to ensure a slick staging. Such smoothness is carried into ‘Getting Married Today’ when the Priest is always in exactly the right place for the start of each refrain, even in one instance arriving in position by emerging out of the refrigerator.
Overall slickness walks hand in hand with Liam Steel’s choreography where there are several notable successes. The trio ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ is nicely handled, while the large ‘What Would We do Without You?’ towards the beginning of Act II is one of the evening’s highlights by virtue of its scale, dynamism and sheer inventiveness. However, the ‘slow motion’ movement employed in ‘Another Hundred People’, which generates a sense of figures tumbling on and off metro carriages as they go about their daily lives, is just as effective, albeit in a far quieter way.
While Bobbie is now a woman, the people within each couple in most cases remain the same as before. One exception, however, is Amy and Paul who in this version are a gay couple with Amy becoming Jamie. Normally, at the moment when Amy has decided she will not marry Paul, Bobby finds himself proposing to Amy, which leads her back to Paul. Here, Bobbie ends up proposing to a gay man, but this works because Jamie’s reaction takes this additional point into account.
More problems arise from necessarily switching the gender of Bobbie’s three individual lovers from female to male as in the process their characters are also altered. For example, normally with Marta it is her hyperbolic enthusiasm that feels irritating (although it can depend on the specific portrayal), whereas with her male equivalent PJ it is his pretentiousness. The character of April is also changed in Andy so that Bobbie’s friends do not describe him as ‘tacky’ but rather ‘light-weight’. These are hardly major problems in themselves, but in moments like this we do find ourselves analysing the changes, and concluding that, no matter how inevitable or necessary they are, the result could still hardly be described as an improvement on the original.
Nevertheless, the production as a whole more than justifies its choice to switch the genders, aided as it is by such a slick staging and outstanding cast. Rosalie Craig embodies Bobbie so naturally that it seldom occurs to us just how good her singing is in technical terms, because it feels such a natural extension of her character. From among the large ensemble cast there is excellent support from Gavin Spokes as Harry who leads ‘Sorry-Grateful’ very effectively, Jonathan Bailey who gives a priceless turn as the nervous wreck of a groom Jamie, and Ben Miller as Larry whose interaction with wife Joanne is perfectly judged. The latter is played by Patty LuPone who, perched on a high stool in a bar, drools over ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ in a way that surely only she ever could.