A Little Night Music @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
John Addison, Florence Andrews, Laura Armstrong, Jessie Buckley, Lynden Edwards, Jeremy Finch, Holly Hallam, Kaisa Hammarlund, Alex Hanson, Grace Link, Maureen Lipman, Charlotte Page, Kelly Price, Alistair Robins, Nicola Sloane, Gabriel Vick, Hannah Waddingham

directed by
Trevor Nunn
Trevor Nunn’s immaculate production of A Little Night Music is guaranteed to raise a smile on a winter night during its Menier run. After all the big musicals he’s done in recent years, it’s good to see Nunn back working on a small-scale, casting one back to the quality of his studio work during the 70s.

There’s a slightly languorous feel to the pacing, bringing something almost Chekovian to the complex emotional entanglements.

This has an enormous pay-off, one that would be sure to meet the fastidious demands of the composer. It allows you to savour Sondheim’s urbane and witty lyrics and not a single word is lost.

The performers are aided in this by the unobtrusive backing of the seven-piece band and the delicate orchestrations by Jason Carr, under Tom Murray and Caroline Humphris’ musical direction. The intimate space of the Menier Chocolate Factory, with atmospheric sets and lighting, brings out the subtleties of this most exquisite of scores.

Having recently directed Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Nunn has returned to the musical’s source material, the Swedish director’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night. The result is masterful story-telling; it’s there already in Hugh Wheeler’s book but Nunn brings it out more strongly than any production of the last 30 years.

The casting of Hannah Waddingham breaks a long tradition of having older actresses, who can’t sing, in the part of Desire. While Judi Dench brought undoubted depth to the character in the National Theatre production some dozen years ago, it’s great to have a natural musical theatre performer in the role. Waddingham may not be quite the Grande Dame, (it’s hardly credible that she’s an interpreter of Ibsen and Racine, even in a third-rate tour) but her statuesque beauty and relative youth mean a fresh and hugely sympathetic approach. She sings like a dream too.

Alexander Hanson is superb as Fredrik Egerman, the lawyer widowed, married to a child-bride and divorced from his true feelings. There’s enough youthfulness about his appearance that lets us see the younger man in the one turning middle-aged. It’s not just the waltz-laced score that reminds one of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, with its wistful reminiscence of youth and sense of passing time. Age and ageing is a vital theme in A Little Night Music too, swirling clouds of memory dovetailing with the self-conscious cares (and sometimes wisdom) of youth.

Reality TV refugee Jessie Buckley (she was pipped at the post to the part of Nancy in Oliver) overcomes a too precise, pasted-on accent and some screechy high notes to give an endearing performance as the kittenish virgin-wife Anne. Maureen Lipman gives her all as the matriarchal Madame, looking as though she’s auditioning for Lady Bracknell in her imperious surveying of the lunacies of the young and younger, but fading away touchingly.

The only flaw in the casting is the nasally-drawling Alistair Robins as Count Carl-Magnus. No peacock, it is hard to understand why any of the women would be interested in him. The character is so repugnant, in his vanity and egoistic chauvinism, that he surely needs to be either extremely handsome or oozing charm and charisma. Robins is merely oafish.

Kelly Price is largely effective as his long-suffering wife and both Gabriel Vick and Kaisa Hammarlund give convincing portrayals of the washed-out son Henrik and colourful maid Petra. The latter’s “Miller’s Son”, so often just an excuse for a damn good belt, is beautifully acted.

The quintet of Liebeslieder singers is fully-characterised and there is a notable resurrection of the lost song “Silly People” (familiar from the compilation show Marry Me a Little), the first time it’s been used in a full production of A Little Night Music.

This is a production to match the Menier’s marvellous Sunday in the Park with George and a future West End run has to be a pretty safe bet but it’s worth catching its intimate beginnings before it’s opened out for a bigger theatre.

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