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West End Review: ‘Company’

A gender-flipped lead makes 'Company' contemporary, as Bobby becomes Bobbie in Marianne Elliott's classy revival.

With:
Jonathan Bailey, George Balgden, Ashley Campbell, Rosalie Craig, Richard Fleeshman, Alex Gaumond, Mel Giedroyc, Richard Henders, Ben Lewis, Patti LuPone, Daisy Maywood, Jennifer Saayeng, Matthew Seadon-Young, Gavin Spokes.

Here comes “Company,” remade for today. With Stephen Sondheim’s blessing, director Marianne Elliott has given the marital musical an incisive gender-flip. Bobby has become Bobbie; bachelor become bachelorette. It brings a 50-year-old show — and its sexual politics — bang up to date.

Sondheim has described “Company” as “a product of its time.” Written in 1969 and based on seven short plays by the late George Furth, its story of a 35-year-old singleton staving off the social pressure to settle down came in the wake of a sexual revolution. Traditional assumptions around marriage were breaking down and, for better or worse, richer or poorer, notions of masculinity were up for grabs. Playboy was hitting its peak, and Bobby, with his bachelor pad and bed-hopping, seemed like the archetypal new man — but was he happy? His married friends all assume not. Oughtn’t he think about shacking up?

Today, it’s femininity — or womanhood — that’s in flux, as we hymn “Single Ladies” and cheer female execs. Bobbie, here played by Rosalie Craig, might once have been seen as a spinster, but today she’s as freely, breezily and enviably single as any bloke, at least outwardly. Yet, as Elliott makes clear with a beautifully light touch, society stills piles the pressure on women to wed.

On her 35th birthday, Bobbie’s friends encroach on her tiny one-bed apartment, stealthily emerging from the shadows upstage, still desperate to see her happily hitched. They cram into her box flat like a bad smell — enough happy couples to tip from company to crowd — to sing the praises of partnership at the singleton in their midst. It’s oppressive, all the more so directed at a woman rather than a man; regressive too, an outmoded norm. There’s a quiet violence in it; a sense of people pinning her down. The show’s insistent ding-dong refrain — “Bob-bie, Bob-bie” — tips beyond nagging and starts to sound as ominous as the theme from “Jaws.”

It’s also the tick-tock of a biological clock counting down — “Bobbie, baby” — and that same pressure comes from within Bobbie as well. Her new, old age, 35, looms large throughout. The number follows her around the city: in silver party balloons, on every front door, in clothes. Shouldn’t she, maybe more than her male counterpart, think about settling down?

Beneath her carefree, empowered exterior, Craig makes clear that Bobbie feels, fundamentally, all alone. The men she dates are all dunces and drips. Her flat’s empty and unwelcoming. The city itself is uncaring. Craig finds in her a secret, deep-seated depression that swells through the show. In spite of it all — her cheer, her wit — this Bobbie still feels like a failure. Would a man? “Someone is Waiting” sounds less like the candid confession of a playboy’s isolation, more the brittle dream of a girl raised to believe in romance. In the final number “Being Alive,” she lets terror mingle with tenacity as if, just maybe, that’s not enough on its own.

Elliott frees the musical’s feelings. Like Sam Mendes, whose legendary London production Sondheim credited with restoring the musical to its “natural balance,” Elliott turns “Company” into an expressionist trip. All the action takes place in its protagonist’s head, a mental survey of marriages, memories and imagination. Bathed in the midnight blues and hot pinks of Neil Austin’s lighting, Craig’s Bobbie glides from scene to scene, peeking into other people’s marriages. In Liam Steel’s choreography, her pals pop up in poses like old Polaroid snaps. Their flats materialize around her as if in a dream.

Drifting through them in a vivid red dress, Craig’s Bobbie starts to seem strangely lost, directionless in more ways than one. She’s hostage to the thoughts running through her head — less level-headed thought experiments, weighing up pros and cons, and more an idle daydream on the edge of an anxiety attack. At one point, a fantasia of her future selves slide out of her own bedrooms walls. One’s pregnant, another’s swaddled in a papoose. Subway cars take on a sickly chlorine glow as commuters comingle in the dark. It is all, very knowingly, very “Alice in Wonderland.” The crazed birthday bash of “Side by Side” becomes a Mad Hatter’s tea party, and her own flat seems to shapeshift. She’s dwarfed by vast bloated silver balloon, then stood over a teeny candlelit cake. It’s deliciously delirious.

Bobbie’s not the only gender flip — mostly for the good. While her trio of male dates lightens the bite of the original’s misogynistic mistreatment, role reversal turns Jenny (Jennifer Saayeng) and David (Richard Henders) from breadwinner and housewife to career woman and stay-at-home dad. It helps complicate a picture that was, originally, macho men and meek wives. Soon-to-be weds Paul and Amy become a gay couple (Paul and Jamie) in matching white suits and pink lemonade shirts. “Getting Married Today” still carries the wedding-day panic of a bride caught in a trap, but actor Jonathan Bailey, brilliantly, adds enough camp hysteria to let the comedy take bloom, as a hallucinated priest pops out of their fridge.

It all makes the musical feel newly modern. Light textual tweaks strip out the seventies setting, as people swipe right on smart phones and parade eligible Facebook friends. But it also suits a musical that takes a mixed view of marriage. Whether it’s Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes as a couple fighting in their front room, or Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell as a pair deciding they’re better suited to divorce, each relationship has its idiosyncrasies, but they’re all somehow the same: brilliant and broken, as “Sorry-Grateful” so eloquently suggests. The greyscale furnishings and boxed-in flats of Bunnie Christie’s design imply a certain bland conformity, and she stamps the show’s logo all over the stage: “COMPANY” printed like a corporate stamp. It all adds to the sense that this brilliant, gregarious, vital young woman, Bobbie, is being squeezed into shape.

But the switch might save its best until last. The character Joanne, and her hymn to those “Ladies Who Lunch,” is transformed. Patti LuPone plays Joanne with a bitumen-black resolve, every bit as embittered as she is empowered. Cloaked in a fur coat and glinting like a one-woman diamond mine, she’s dazzling and awful at the same time — a martini mixed from measures of exuberance and scorn. She’s joyfully joyless.

The difference is who’s sitting opposite her: not Bobby, recoiling from a vision of a partner far down the line, but Bobbie, face-to-face with a future that could become her own. Craig perches on a bar stool, both entranced and repulsed, as LuPone lets rip with a bona-fide showstopper, ferocious as hell. She opens one vowel sound into a full foghorn yell; a kept woman screaming at the state of it all.

West End Review: 'Company'

Gielgud Theatre, London; 986 seats; £99.50, $130 top. Opened, Oct. 17, 2018; reviewed Oct 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Production: An Elliott Harper Productions production of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth.

Creative: Directed by Marianne Elliott; choreography, Liam Steel; design, Bunny Christie; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Ian Dickinson; illusions, Chris Fisher; hair, wigs and make-up, Campbell Young Associates; orchestrations, David Cullen; musical supervisor, Joel Fram; dance arrangements, Sam Davis; fight direction, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown; voice and dialect coach, Charmian Hoare.

Cast: Jonathan Bailey, George Balgden, Ashley Campbell, Rosalie Craig, Richard Fleeshman, Alex Gaumond, Mel Giedroyc, Richard Henders, Ben Lewis, Patti LuPone, Daisy Maywood, Jennifer Saayeng, Matthew Seadon-Young, Gavin Spokes.

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