The current vogue for pint-sized revivals of grand-scale tuners reveals one thing: only the strongest writing survives such intimate scrutiny. David Cullen’s translucent re-orchestration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1989 score of “Aspects of Love” for 7-piece band is more aromatic and piquant than before but its felicities only go so far. Up close and personal, Trevor Nunn’s strained production merely exposes the weak dramaturgy.
Bookended by scenes of Alex (Michael Arden) in a state of rapt reverie, the show is a flashback over the past 18 years of his romantic life, a daisy chain with, to put it mildly, more than a few knots.
At 19, Alex falls for actress Rose (Katherine Kingsley), who succumbs but chooses his older, richer, art-forging uncle George (Dave Willetts), who also finds time for Italian sculptress Giulietta (Rosalie Craig), who, in turn, beds Rose. A decade later, Alex and Rose rekindle their romance, only for Alex to become fiercely attracted to Rose and George’s 15-year-old daughter, Jenny (Rebecca Brewer), before heading off with Giulietta.
Almost all the relationships outside the central couple are underwritten, and so for this self-conscious tale of love among the artists to work, the longstanding passion between Alex and Rose must be plausible. Arden and Kingsley have well-produced, exciting voices but, fatally, there’s not even a scintilla of sexual chemistry between them.
Arden sings “Love Changes Everything” very well – Lloyd Webber reprises this and the effective duet “Seeing Is Believing” countless times when not sneaking it into the underscoring – but, paradoxically, the character never changes. Naive and never-been-kissed at the start, not even roughed-up hair and slightly more relaxed clothes can stop him still looking virginal at the end.
Alex is the storyteller but the focus is on Rose, a woman with whom several men are obsessed for years. Kingsley twists her tall body this way and that, busily underlining Rose’s brittle quality, but her arch playing makes Rose so willful that the necessary charm vanishes.
Charm, in fact, is the quality missing almost throughout, the exception being Rosalie Craig, who, as Giulietta, brings understated warmth to the most consistent character and even overrides the cliched “artistic” costuming that afflicts most of the production.
David Farley’s set, a sandstone version of his multi-purpose wall of doors for Nunn’s “A Little Night Music,” is low on atmosphere and Nunn, a man famous for musical stagings, seems oddly at sea on it. The awkwardly handled sequence where Alex accidentally shoots Rose is farcical in the wrong way. Even more puzzling is his unclear, dislocating decision to have French characters speaking to each other sometimes in French, sometimes in English and always with cod French accents.
The major plus is the revision of the sung-through score. Previously, the larger orchestral sound meant a phrase like “Love changes everything” – more emotionally resonant when sung – was on an almost equal footing with George’s “Has somebody stolen my copy of ‘Brave New World?’ ” The new orchestration grades the subsidiary sung dialogue down towards recitative and refocuses attention on the more song-like numbers.
Yet if Lloyd Webber fans provide impetus for another Menier transfer, they may be disappointed. A larger stage would only exacerbate the problem now revealed. The added focus on the big songs makes you realize there’s less to “Aspects” than meets the ear.