Saturday, February 10, 2007

Here comes Company

To the Old Fire Station Theatre in Oxford for a revival of Company, the Stephen Sondheim musical where marriage is the name of the game and singledom is a busted flush.

Sondheim has a happy history in Oxford: I've seen excellent productions of Into the Woods, Assassins and West Side Story; the challenge of these larger, more complex shows has regularly been met. Company is a different beast: it has no linear plot - it is a series of vignettes of married life; its songs are not dynamos for the story but sharp analyses; and it requires no complicated staging (murderous giant anyone?).

The non-plot plot revolves around Bobby (Lucas O'Connor, who has a terrific voice and an engagingly devilish yet vulnerable manner), single among his whirl of close married friends. He just can't commit, instead skating through girlfriends and being set up by the marrieds, who preach the gospel of connubial bliss. Their own marital issues are explored by discrete scenes and songs; suffice it, it is easier to promote marriage when you don't have to consider your own.

This cynical attitude is suggested right at the start with the first song, 'Company' - Bobby can't avoid being badgered by his friends suggesting days out and evenings in, all in an obsessive desire for his presence ('Phone rings,/ Door chimes,/ In comes/ Company!'), implying the pleasure of Bobby's company and the insufficient company of their own marriages. The director, Sebastian Cameron, says in his note that 'the audience is never once told what to think', however the lack of idealised marriages is in itself a statement of belief.

The songs tend towards the sceptical in fact, even if the dramatic movement is towards acceptance of marriage and the need to let others in. 'Sorry-Grateful' ('You're always sorry,/ You're always grateful,/ You hold her, thinking:/ "I'm not alone."/ You're still alone') is unequivocally equivocal. But by the end, despite the dysfunctions around him, Bobby has seen that we all need other people to feel human ('Being Alive').

Is this a discrepancy in thought, with Bobby being shown one thing yet doing another? No, because he has realised that there is nothing wrong with these dysfunctions as long as they are your own. He has learnt that being the third wheel may be fun but that's all it is - your own pain and joy, your real experiences, are what marriage is about. Even if marriage is not idealised here, partnership wins through as a basic sign of humanity.

Everything is much more intimate in Company, hence the cast has to be strong in all its players - weak links are obvious when each is given solo time. The ensemble was very strong here, all being competent triple threats and making the larger numbers - especially 'Side By Side By Side', which goes on for quite a while - sophisticated and not at all disjointed. If there is a problem with the ensemble, it is that in musical numbers when they are not dancing they rather trample across the stage like bewildered cattle; this could probably have been solved with a stronger directorial hand.

There are some wonderful performances in individual scenes, particularly from Casey Rath as Amy, a reluctant imminent bride who has to deliver lyrics at spitfire speed as she figures out how to dump her fiancé before the altar, and Grace Overbeke as Joanne, the much-married harridan who is given the triumphant if incongruous 'Ladies Who Lunch', a bitter reflection on women who have (even illusory) purpose.

But Lucas O'Connor is the triumph of the evening. While perhaps not as macho as you might expect Bobby to be, O'Connor is a Mephistopheles of marriage, spinning his friends' wheels with a wicked grin. You can see Bobby's thoughts and pains being played on his face, and his voice is most expressive. He does beautifully bored dancing when he is conscripted into his friends' joy in 'Side By Side By Side', keeping up the pace while conveying his frustration. I for one would be glad to see O'Connor in another show.

Among the prodigious output of student shows in Oxford - at least three new productions every week - there are diamonds and there are disasters; happy to report, Company glittered.

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